a list of my better reviews:
2000 | 2001 | 20022003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
about my reviews
All That Heaven Allows - a masterwork by a great artist. sirk does a great job of juxtaposing the beauty of the scenery with the artificial beauty of his characters. when he scratches the surface a seedy, hidden malevolence shows itself. rock hudson's character in this one is great. he sees the world for what it is and cuts through the bullshit. in many ways he's what i aspire to be. honesty is more important than appearances. faux friends should be eschewed for inner reflection and a meaningful life. jane wyman is caught in the middle, still feeling the familiar tug of the cushy life and not wanting to upset the status quo with her community, friends, and children. the toast hudson and his friends have summarizes it in a familiar fashion: here's to them that wish us well, all the rest can go to hell.
sirk's visual style is top notch. he fragments the frame to visually reinforce the idea that not all is well. he shows the characters in reflection, boxing them in as they are boxed in by society's mores. showing us the two-sided personality we all carry with us - one for the outer world and one for our closest friends. his use of colors is great and great to look at. his use of shadow and light is also top notch. characters moving in and out of light within a scene. in one scene wyman is alone putting on makeup and her kids walk in. she's in the blue half of the screen that is dark and they come from the door which casts a yellowish light into the room. the room is divided with these colors and the characters move around the room within these divisions, but wyman and the kids are almost always on different sides. it reminded me of a scene in rashomon where you have three characters in a triangle and depending upon where kurosawa puts the camera you get to think about the one, two, or three characters he shows. how do they relate to each other, what is that combination of characters thinking?
speaking of characters, there's a colorful cast here and there's an economy of storytelling that i really appreciate in films like this, the killing and paths of glory. all of them are in the 90 minute range yet they have 6 or more characters who are well-defined and interesting. many films spend over 100 minutes to barely establish one or two characters, much less a half dozen. wyman and hudson are well drawn, of course, but the lesser characters like moorehead, wyman's daughter, wyman's son, and the neighborhood gossip are all well-defined.
the music, too, is right where it needs to be. it punctuates emotional notes with the same style as the rest of the film. it's clear, but not overly dramatic. really, that's what sirk, in his best work, does so well - dances on the line of melodrama and understatement. he does it with great flair and a deft touch and it just works. these same stories (all that heaven allows, imitation of life, written on the wind) in the hands of a lesser director would overwrought and unwatchable. A+.

Capitalism: A Love Story - it's michael moore's worst film so far. essentially it's a compilation of all his previous work presented in the same format that you're used to by now if you haven't been living under a rock. he comes back to flint, he uses archival footage to open the film, he does some ambush journalism stuff, he gets some anecdotal evidence to support his claim and that's pretty much it. really, it's like a michael moore clipshow, and actually that would have been better.
so, it sounds like i'm panning the film, but i'm really not. i like moore's work. i've said for about 8 years or so that i agree with about 85% of what he says, it's mostly the 15% and some of his tactics that have made him noteworthy, but overall i think he's a good guy and good filmmaker with good intentions. but the thing you have to understand about him is that johnny got his gun is his favorite film of all-time; that says something about the guy. the sad thing is that he sold out a bit when he dropped nader and jumped on the "anybody but bush" bandwagon in '04; that move made me lose a good deal of respect for his convictions.
at any rate, this film really is a notch or two below even sicko which was a good, but not great film. i think he mailed this one in, but he'll be back. the film raises some obvious issues with capitalism and i think that most thinking and informed people have noticed or thought about most of the ideas presented here. the shame isn't that the style lacks the vision he's had in the past, rather it's that he makes a sloppy argument here and he could have done better. again, he mailed it in. unlike some of his other work, this one isn't going to really inspire anyone to change their mind or think about the issue in a great new way, this one is strictly for the choir. B-.

Network - really a great film that gets better with each viewing. great editing, ensemble cast, and writing. 76 was a tough year for best pic - all the president's men, network, rocky and taxi driver are all great films in their own way. my favorite is taxi driver, but i don't have too much of a problem with any of them winning. i do think that network should have won for editing, though, instead of rocky. rocky gets the edge because it's a sports movie and has "action" scenes, but when you look at this one closely it's well put together and deserved the nod.
each character is so twisted and fucked up in their own special way. each one represents a changing of the guard and the shift of society at large and television more specifically. this is a film that is going to last a long time because of these reasons. it also works on a human level with dunaway as the vacuous broad who is married to her career and holden as the over-the-hill guy looking to revitalize his life in all the wrong places. beatrice straight won an academy for something like 4.5 minutes of screen time in large part because she shows the very real effects of man's desire for adventure (i.e., holden's dumping his wife for the newer model). it's a sad film, yes, but it's also a funny film. the satire extends beyond the tv world and into the world of political extremism. the communists and self-righteous revolutionaries who make a deal with the devil (dunaway/tv in general) are portrayed as equally obsessed with money - they come with their own team of lawyers and break their own values just to get their faces on the dummy box.
then there's howard beale who is certifiably insane yet the only one who seems to have any real convictions beyond himself. in the end those don't last because he's too unstable and prone to visions of god (even if they come in the form of the chairman of the board).
a piece of work. A.

Inglourious Basterds - with the prospect of another tarantino film i began thinking about his legacy. after some thought it occurred to me that he'll never ben in the pantheon of great directors because he hasn't made enough films and of the films he has created he has one masterpiece and a few really good films. the simple truth is, that he's just not prolific enough to be placed with
the likes of hitchcock, chaplin, ford and even kubrick who also didn't make a lot of films, but got the most out of each film he did make. when he comes out with a film it's a must see event, but i really don't think he's as good as the great ones of our time - scorsese, spielberg, coens, or even fincher and p.t. anderson. he's a step below those guys in terms of actual final product, but he has a unique style and is a cultural magnet so i think that helps his cause.
inglourious basterds (what's with the spelling?) is definitely tarantino. it works in various elements that define his style and tastes - film references, lifted styles (ford, leone, aldrich), gratuitous violence,
conversation-heavy scenes, his foot fetish, use of both harvey keitel and samuel jackson, and more. what it's lacking that kill bill and pulp fiction had is a tighter structure - this one meanders a bit and you're aware of it. in pulp fiction the story digresses with conversation and frayed storylines, but it's always interesting; here that doesn't happen to the same degree. this one also lacks the sense of humor that kill bill and pulp fiction had. there were a few laughs throughout and only one or two real good laughs.
another area that is lacking here is the soundtrack. generally you can count on tarantino to introduce us to a few new songs per movie, but here there isn't much to lean on. the early pieces lean on morricone, but don't really deliver like miserlou or bang bang (nancy sinatra) or the 5,6,7,8s or chick habit or down in mexico - songs and artists which really stood out in his other films. there also isn't a "stuck in the middle" scene like there was in reservoir dogs or a bring out the gimp scene like in pulp fiction. the bar scene was a more drawn out version of the mexican standoff in reservoir dogs.
this one does build tension very well and the tension is paid off well in the bar scene, the first scene, and the penultimate scene. still, i think a strong producer could have reined this one in a bit. a lot of times a successful director gets too much creative license and doesn't know how to edit himself, i think that happened here.
another thing tarantino is known for is finding talent. he resurrects careers and gets new ones going seemingly every time he makes a new film. here he finds christoph waltz and waltz gives a great performance; likely the best of the year.
the whole anti-nazi element was cathartic, but easy. whereas his two best works (r. dogs and pulp fiction) were about people on the edge of society who it was a challenge to like, this one is about a group on the edge of the military structure, but it's easy to like them because they're fighting the nazis. it's the equivalent of feeling sorry for a character because the director gives him cancer - it's just too easy. pitt and his crew aren't particularly dynamic or fleshed out. they're good at what they do and we like them because they kill nazis, but they don't have the depth of jackie brown or the interest level of keitel/roth in reservoir dogs or jackson/travolta in pulp fiction.
so, there's good stuff here to latch onto for fans, but overall it doesn't deliver in the same way that his better work does. it has isolated moments of success sandwiched by lulls and meandering stretches that don't entertain the way tarantino has in the past. if this were a new film from a young upstart i would think he had talent that needed to be better focused, but coming from a director who has been called a visionary of our time, it just isn't up to par. B.

Bridge On The River Kwai - definitely better the second time around. guinness' character is an interesting one. he gets certain elements of his logic right, but hubris and obsession with the task at hand put him in a trance. it isn't until he is near death that he realizes his mistake and, with his death, does the right thing. i was never fully on board with him because of the bone he picks with his japanese camp master - that his officers should not have to perform labor. he makes it a matter of principal, but it's such a class-based argument. very british.
speaking of his japanese counterpart, colonel saito is one of the more interesting "villains" that i can remember. we know he is a bad guy, but in many ways i found myself with more sympathy for him than guinness' character. he's stuck between a rock and a hard place (you decide which one guinness is), and is fighting for his life, honor and pride. he loses the last two first and the first one last. tragic.
holden is somewhat of an afterthought and may have been put in there to appeal to the u.s. audience. he provides some needed comic relief and is somewhat necessary for the conclusion of the plot, but isn't as integral to my thinking as top-billing might indicate. i probably would have shrunk the film and had guinness plan the destruction of the bridge himself, without the knowledge of any of his peers. this would have made his character more of a martyr and more savvy and powerful in the final analysis. but i tend toward the martyr characters so that's just me.
a fine film as it is. a bit long, but that's Lean. the opening theme is too grand and the closing theme is too jovial - score could have used some work. B+.

Flow: For Love Of Water - like food inc. this is another documentary that spells doom and gloom about a fundamental element of our being: water. it's fairly well done, but not as good as food inc. and certainly not as good as the corporation. as usual, i had some problems with what i saw as some overreaction, but overall i am sympathetic to the cause. the same can be said about another recent documentary: I.O.U.S.A. which i felt blew the economic debt of the u.s. a bit out of proportion. in general, i think people want to feel closer to death so they come up with doomsday scenarios in religion or science or whatever.
a lot of these documentaries come up with some pretty bogus figures. this one states that the u.n. estimates all the world could have clean, healthy water if we only invested $30 billion, that's $70 billion less than the world spent on bottled water last year. frankly i don't believe that figure for a second. these sorts of projects invariably cost much more than originally imagined. $30 billion probably wouldn't even be enough to effectively address the issues in america, at least according to their assessment of our water system.
i've said for a long time that i don't feel the world has that much of a problem with the amount of water, it's just a matter of capturing and cleaning all the water that we already have. so, ultimately, when we have to turn to desalination on a larger basis, it's going to be an energy issue; once again.
speaking of "once again," how many documentaries like this need to come out before people realize how inherently evil corporations are? they are far too powerful in our legal and political system and they are at the root of so many of our biggest problems. whether it's france-based suez or u.s.-based nestle or swiss-based syngenta, these companies care only about profit, it is their nature. just as energy problems could be greatly addressed by a single solar panel on the roof of every house, a single cistern in every backyard would go a long way towards fixing our water problems. B-.

Lethal Weapon - great 80s flick that was the precursor to die hard. joel silver may be the biggest story here. beginning in the 80s silver was a top notch producer. actually, his success started in 79 with the warriors, but he really gained momentum in the 80s with: commando, 48 hours, weird science, lethal weapon, predator, die hard, and sequels to those last three films. lethal weapon is quite similar to die hard: same composer (kamen does a lot of the same stuff here as he does in die hard), same location (LA), same time frame (christmas), same character dynamic (black and white cop working to rid the city of evil in spite of their bosses), same blond-haired henchman, and at least three actors appeared in both films (asian henchman, special agent johnson plays a cop here, and the chick reporter in die hard is the shrink here). both also happen to be great. i hadn't seen this one in a long time, but i'm glad i revisited it. so much of it informed my movie viewing and outlook on things. gibson (in his second best performance ever - road warrior) plays an on the edge cop who is a vietnam vet and suicidal. the movie shaped my view of vietnam vets to a certain degree (in that it cut to the core about their being forgotten in the mental health department). it also is notable because of the drug angle and the opening scene which features a topless girl committing suicide. the torture scene sticks out in my head and the relationship between glover and gibson is also noteworthy. it's a fun film with an edge to it and it's unrelenting. action, issues of suicide and mental illness, drug use, torture, etc. it's a heavy flick and a great one. A+.

I.O.U.S.A. - like obama, i think that things are never as good or as bad as they seem. this documentary gives us the doomsday scenario regarding our economic system - we're too far in debt to other countries and that's going to lead to our becoming china or, at the very least, china having far too much influence on our decisions. they compare this to post-wwii uk and their handling of the suez canal crisis in 1956. the uk was forced to give into american demands because the u.s. held so much of the uk's debt that the u.s. could have done massive economic damage to the uk if they didn't do
as we wished. the primary difference between that and the us/china relationship is that the us still has more military power than any country in the world. when push comes to shove, military power is more important than anything else so i reject the idea that the u.s. is going to fall apart economically because of our debt.
i also think that the u.s., being the largest single global consumer, has a great deal of power that the uk has never had. so that's the good, the bad is that reagan, bush and now obama have gotten us into such amazing levels of (absolute) debt that we really are in trouble. i don't buy many of the projections that the documentary put forth showing us being in debt to the tune of 200% of our gdp in x number of years because i've found that long term projections are incredibly inaccurate. for example, clinton's projection that we would run a surplus for the next 25 years under his economic plan. yeah right. it assumes far too much and doesn't account for things outside of our control - 9/11, katrina, earthquakes, changing presidents/congress, global factors, etc. it's absurd to project that far into the future, quite frankly. so much of those projections can change with increased energy independence and health care reform. even slight improvements in those areas have exponential dividends 25 years down the line.
so, the documentary is good to call attention to a serious issue, but i don't think it's as bad as they say it is. B-.

Wrestler - darren aronofsky's least interesting film to date. pi is powerful, lo-fi and cerebral. requiem has the multiple storylines and addiction themes as well as a killer soundtrack. the fountain, while his least entertaining film, has an immense depth and imagination to it. it's one of those films i'll probably revisit every few years and get into more and more as i understand it more. the wrestler, however, is what it is. it's well made and features a great performance from rourke (everyone's darling for the next 10 minutes), but i don't think it has the depth of his other films. it's got elements of rocky, city by the sea, and about a million other films that feature washed up has beens looking for redemption. the film doesn't beg you to like rourke's character, which is a good thing. it presents him warts and all and essentially allows you to make your own judgment on his character (thus the ending). the ending, by the way, was well set up by the early abrupt cuts of music/action. you question where aronofsky was going with that and the final scene is the answer.
for me a film's success is largely based upon the existence of a main character i can like, relate to, appreciate in some way. ultimately, rourke's character just didn't do it for me. he's a sad character, but that's not difficult for a director to do. he's sympathetic, sure, but not quite enough. he's sympathetic not because of the easy things that make him sympathetic - he's a screw up, he had a heart attack, he's a nice guy, but more because of the fact that he's an average guy. maybe he's too average. truth is, i feel sorry for him more than anything else. he's not dumb like rocky, but rocky is a better person. rocky is a guy who is trying harder to be a good person. rocky loves adrian and plays with the neighborhood kids like rourke does here, but rocky isn't asshole enough to leave his daughter hanging around while he bangs some bimbo in a public bathroom. i guess what it comes down to for me is that life isn't like baseball. in baseball you can bat hit the ball 30-40% of the time and be considered great. in life batting .300 makes you a shithead in my eyes. rourke didn't need to bat 1.000 to be great, but striking out with his daughter is like pulling a bill buckner; to beat an analogy to death. you get the point.
what's the deal with marissa tomei as a failed stripper? yeah, right. i've never been to a strip bar, but i can guarantee she'd be a major earner. good, solid film, not as amazing as some would have you think. would i watch it again tomorrow? probably not. B.

Slumdog Millionaire - great film. it's occurred to me that many of the films i love are just outside of realistic. my top three could be considered lies of some sort and this one tells a lie in its own way. sure, they're all plausible on some level, but they each stretch the truth or stylize it to dramatic effect. that's one of the things that film can do so well.
danny boyle is one of those directors whose work falls into the must see category. whenever he has a new film i do my best to check it out. i haven't seen beach or millions, but i've seen the rest of his feature films, including the made for tv "vacuuming completely nude in paradise." i love what he does in part because it's always something new. horror, straight-up comedy, junkie brit grit, etc. word has it that his dream is to make a musical; i'd even watch that if it came to fruition.
it's said that everything you've done in your life has led to this point. it's true and can be occasionally depressing, but this idea is at the crux of slumdog millionaire. boyle weaves the past and present together well and, for the most part, maintains the momentum. films about fate can sometimes come off as trite, especially if the characters aren't well presented. here, though, boyle presents us with great characters and uses the game show as an interesting plot device to bring about a familiar ending. it's a life-affirming film with a great balance of comedy and the kind of drama no one i'll ever meet will know. one of the three best of the year. B+.

Religulous - documentaries are different than when i learned to love them. the fly-on-the-wall documentary is basically dead at this point, having been replaced by the visual essay of michael moore, anti-bush amateurs, and various other people with an agenda. i prefer the maysles brothers style of exploration and reportage instead of the point-of-view film. most of them seem to come from the left, but there are some (like ben stein's "expelled" documentary) that come from the right. regardless of their author, these types of documentaries have a singular point of view and impose it throughout the film. religulous falls into this category.
bill maher happens to be funny and i agree with his point that we can't really know if there's a god and what he says or wants from us. however, maher's biggest fault here is that there is only one type of religion to him - fundamentalism. he doesn't acknowledge the reality that there are some who practice religions of various kinds in peaceful and fairly intelligent ways. the times he does encounter people who choose to ignore many of the ridiculous elements of their religion he challenges their religion anyway, saying it's impossible to separate the good ideals of a religion from many of the contradictory or silly stories that accompany it. i respect his doubt and wit, but we have to acknowledge and respect the choice of others to believe in the god of their choosing. B.

Out Of Africa - gotta call this one a chick flick. i like redford, but i think of him as a simple actor in a lot of ways. and the movie is the same way - there's not much mystery to it. every scene is predictable, it's as if i've seen the movie before. it's sort of the equivalent of that poster that describes the perfect woman: it shows a hot looking chick in lingerie and has multiple quotes like "do you want a blowjob before or after i make you dinner?" and "my hot friend wants a threesome with you and me, is that okay with you?" redford is basically the same thing in this movie. in one scene streep and redford are on a safari and two lions rush them, shortly after dispatching one of them (the inspiringly-strong-streep gets the other) redford looks at streep and wipes the blood off her lip (she bit it while shooting the first lion) with a handkerchief. in the next scene his hair is slicked back and he is neatly dressed and they have a full dinner (china and all) under the stars, in the middle of the fucking african bush; then they make out for a while. it isn't as crude as the ideal woman portrayal, but it's the same shit.
in a way it's like romancing the stone, only more dramatic and longer. perhaps that (superior) film was influenced by this one. liked some of the stuff about the not trying to tame africa and its people. good cinematography. also liked redford's character's philosophy. otherwise not my sort of thing. C.

You're Gonna Miss Me - if you've seen one troubled artist documentary then you've seen them all. this one is a lot like the devil and daniel johnston, even the setting (austin, texas) is the same.
they start with a brief view of the artist's genius (perhaps some footage of them when they were sane and insanely good, or their music will play while snapshots from their childhood are shown on the screen). then you'll hear from other artists who you likely respect (or at least have heard of) about how brilliant this artist was and they'll talk about how when this person was at their apex they were the most influential or ingenious or groundbreaking talent around; this person defined a genre or did things no one else could ever dream of doing, etc. then they the director tells you (through a collage of interviews, clippings, music, etc.) about the artist's unfortunate downward spiral which always includes: family, drug, financial, and legal issues. inevitably it's either pointed out, or it becomes obvious, that the person had little control over their situation - drug abuse was a disease, family members kept them down in some way - and that their genius came at great personal cost. they would have been even better if not for...fill in the blank. most of these films will then end with a semi-uplifting recap of the last couple years - the person is doing better, playing shows, starting a family, they're as popular as ever, whatever.
frankly, the success of these films, for me, is about two things: how far from this formula they stray and how much i like the subject's music/art. C+.

Lonely Are The Brave - spoilers ahead. the themes are simple and popular - the death of individualism and freedom. this is a favorite theme of mine and is manifested in many films from this to vanishing point and the shootist. in my opinion there's really only one way these films can end: the death of the protagonist. in this one the horse that kirk douglas rides is shot after it and douglas are hit by an 18 wheeler carrying toilets (that's progress for you). douglas, though, is driven away in an ambulance with his fate unknown. the original inspiration for the film is an edward abbey book and that makes perfect sense since he's all about the wild west and the downside of "progress."
the music seems to have inspired some of morricone's work on the good the bad and the ugly. this was kirk douglas' favorite film that he was involved in and he said was the only film script that was perfect after only one draft.
walter matthau plays a tommy lee jones in no country for old men type of character. i wouldn't doubt it if jones drew some inspiration from matthau's performance. douglas turns in a very good performance with an authentic feel to it. you actually get the impression that douglas has spent significant time on a horse, on the road, and dealing with the law in various ways. douglas was wrong, though, his best performance and the best film he was in was paths of glory. a bit slow, but that seems to be the nature of the on-the-run film genre. good supporting cast with a lot of people you'll recognize (like archie bunker and george kennedy). B.

Anatomy Of A Murder - a fine and watchable film, but nothing extraordinary. it has a dreary ending, but it isn't at all dramatic or impactful - it's just empty. perhaps that's part of the point - all this (all 2hr 40mins, the whole trial) is for nothing; such is life. fine enough, but not real compelling for me.
the best courtroom dramas aren't simply good court room films, they expand the themes to contemporary society in some way - inherit the wind comes to mind. this film didn't seem to have that in any clear way. one could probably extrapolate some meaning from certain elements like the country vs. city theme or larger themes of justice in the mccarthy era or something, though those would be stretching quite a bit. it's a "realistic" courtroom drama in that there's only one "twist" in the plot and the lawyers aren't overly eloquent and witty. no witness breaks down under cross-examination and admits that they were the murderer, or anything like that. the title is fitting of the tone - it's very clinical and detached, it has no heart, it has no opinion; it just is. this is probably what divides most people on the film: some people love its clinical tone and the way the film deals with the subject matter in a frank way, while others are bothered by the lack of "resolution." i'm in the middle. i would have liked the film's conclusion to have a period, instead it felt like a sentence cut off short (and not to the same effect as the ending in sayles' "limbo"). at the same time i liked the realism and frankness of the film.
stewart did a fine job, though the character lacked pop. joseph welch played the judge and i found this performance to be the most entertaining. george c. scott would have been more likely to receive an academy award nomination from me than stewart, but it doesn't matter because they were both nominated. interestingly, the film was nominated for seven aa awards and didn't win any of them (ben-hur was the big winner instead). B.

Bullitt - more complex than i remembered. the car chase is the highlight of the film, though the visual nature of the film was also a joy. so much in the film is shown, not said. when mcqueen has his girlfriend drive him to a crime scene she walks in and sees the dead body. she looks at him and he sees her looking at the body so he walks between the camera (representing the dad body's pov) and her to shield her from the sight. the next shot is of him driving her car. the sequence shows the emotions of the characters without crying or talking or anything else.
the toll that the job takes on bullitt himself is also conveyed visually and otherwise. the film is about a lot of different things and it keeps you thinking - about the plot, the characters, etc. the film was made only a year after in the heat of the night yet i've never heard anyone mention the black doctor who plays a minor role in the film. it's easy to overlook now, but that was probably fairly progressive to just drop a black guy in the role of a doctor. there is a scene where robert vaughn asks for the doctor to be replaced citing "inexperience," but we know what the real reason is. in this way, and many others, the film is as much a marker of the time as it is an entertaining and engaging film. it's very much about the common people - the cabbie (robert duvall), the aforementioned doctor, the nurses, the onlookers at the airport in the final scene, etc. A.

Dark Knight - currently #1 on imdb.com's top 250 of all-time. this is generally a sign of overly-hyped movies - i've seen a lot of films shoot to the top 20 and then fall off the top 250 altogether once the films go to rental and more and more people watch the film. this one has also gotten as much critical hype as anything since there will be blood and no country for old men. usually that makes me play the voice of reason and dissent, but not in this case. this film is epic and great and worthy of the praise it's getting. simply put it's one of the best action films i've seen since the matrix and possibly the best comic-based film ever.
why is it so good? 1) heath ledger as the joker is reason #1. every great action/adventure type film needs a great villain and this one has one in ledger. the makeup transforms him realistically - the scarring, the clown makeup, the oily hair, the wardrobe all add to the slimy character. but it's his acting that truly makes the character. the slithering tongue (recalls the snake and original sin), the voice, the jerky movements all make up a performance that's at least as good as daniel day-lewis' performance in there will be blood; a performance that has been over-rated recently as one of the best in the history of cinema.
2) the writing is excellent. jonathan nolan (who also co-wrote memento with his brother) is a great writer and david s. goyer (blade) was probably responsible for some of the darker touches in the film. they made a good three-man writing team. batman's character is more compelling and darkly drawn than he is in any previous incarnation that i've seen. the themes of chaos, darkness, evil, good, light, etc. are so well developed and explored, yet not too obviously done, that you forget you're watching a "blockbuster."
3) the music. two of the best pieces of original film music in the last five years have come from hans zimmer - one in the third pirates of the caribbean film and the other in this film. the main theme is so well treated here that it just keeps reaping benefits. zimmer's main theme is used in small pieces, or leitmotifs, through the majority of the film and isn't allowed to fully bloom until the last half hour or so. great music used well, doesn't get much better than that.
4) nolan's direction. david edelstein poo-pooed nolan's direction, but, then again, he's about as worthless as most film critics. nolan's direction is actually quite good - his cross-cutting, the building of suspense, his work with the actors, writers, and musicians to bring the whole affair together are all commendable.
it's rare to see a trailer as good as this and have the film actually deliver on the promise. the last time i saw a trailer as good as the one for the dark knight was the teaser for the hills have eyes 2. in that case the teaser was awesome and the film sucked. great film, watch it. A-.

Wanted - mick lasalle says there are two ways of viewing the film: "(1) as a go-for-broke action movie of mixed quality and modest but definite entertainment value, or (2) as a sick, sick movie for a sick, sick public." 90% of the time when a person says there are two types of people in the world or there are two ways of viewing something, they're wrong. lasalle makes a habit of being wrong so it comes as no surprise that he falls into the 90% here.
wanted is a fantasy film much in the mold of the matrix and fight club. you'll recall the furor over fight club because some idiots were too dense to grasp the real meaning of fight club and, rather than subject themselves to introspection and thinking about the modern condition, they beat each other up in the "monkey see, monkey do" mold. in "wanted" we have one of my favorite types of film: a film about the modern condition. incidentally, the modern condition films are only slightly less satisfying than the apocalypse films. in the films that highlight the modern condition there is an acknowledgment of the ills of modern living. in the apocalypse film, modern living is turned to chaos, and those are therefore more fulfilling. wanted has all the usual clichés of the cubical living and the ikea furniture and the cheating girlfriend and horrible boss. sure these are lazy clichés, but they also ring true to a lot of people and, while we might not have all of the above symptoms, at least a few of those will resonate with most viewers. so, cliché, yes, but not as bad as clichés normally are.
where the film goes wrong isn't in the fantasy of wanting to get out of the rut, the rat race that is modern life. rather, it goes wrong in some of its execution. the clichés are obvious and the plot is iffy. but this is a fantasy film and it makes that clear within the first few minutes. it doesn't stack up philosophically to films like fight club and the matrix, though it steals from them in an effort to meet their success. with a stronger writer the film might have worked better. danny elfman's music could have used some work too.
lasalle says that "few people who see "Wanted" will bother to think about it," but that isn't saying much. few people who watch anything truly think about it. the film inspires thought and action for those paying attention. i must say that i enjoyed the ending line "what the fuck have you done?" which is a reference to minor threat's song "in my eyes" (a song about, among other things, making a difference in the world) which ends with the lines: "at least i'm fucking trying, what the fuck have you done?!" B-.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* - ostensibly a film about steroids in america, the film is just as much about the filmmaker's family and american culture as anything else. it takes both a personal and macro view of the issue and does so with refreshing clarity and impartiality. bell's main arguments are: 1) steroids are used by a lot of people, professional athletes among the least. 2) steroids have legitimate uses and, when used in moderation, aren't any more harmful than many other drugs whose use isn't ostracized (anti-depressants, alcohol, tobacco, etc.). 3) other performers are allowed to use performance enhancers without congressional intervention and stigma (beta blockers to reduce anxiety for musicians, aderol for students who can't focus, lasik eye surgery for tiger woods [something i've brought up before], etc.). 4) steroids are an extension of a culture that values winning as a primary pursuit.
bell does a good job of cutting through a lot of the crap and media noise associated with this topic. in the end you're left with the inevitable feeling that steroids aren't as bad as the media make them out to be and aren't all that different from a lot of the other crap that we put in our bodies. you can't even really make the argument that allowing them disadvantages poorer competitors (in the olympics for example) because there are so many inequalities there already: state of the art equipment and training facilities, not to mention designer steroids that fool the tests. once again technology has led us down a perilous path where we have to more or less change our fundamental definitions. in this case countries like the u.s., china, germany, etc. are vastly more capable of producing humans with inhuman strength through genetic engineering, lasik-type surgeries, hgh, steroids, not to mention the already existing inequities of high tech training methods, tools, and facilities. gone are the days of
pure competition, and yes, i do believe it once (not so long ago) existed.
bell paints a fairly dark picture of the culture that supports steroid use/abuse. unfortunately i think he's mostly right: we live in a world where getting your own is most important. bell and his brothers have
failed to understand that creating your own terms for success is what leads to long-term happiness. by adopting the terms laid out by bogus role models (hulk hogan, arnold, sly, etc.) such as being buff and powerful, as well as those laid out by society in general (winning is more important than effort), they have doomed themselves to personal failure. instead they should have followed john wooden's pyramid of success which values effort, character, and industriousness over final outcomes such as a blue ribbon or a bmw. these faults of theirs, though, aren't uncommon - they're entirely human, sad as that may be. i don't think our culture will ever change drastically enough to make the point of steroids (gaining a competitive edge) moot. instead we're destined to keep marching down the road of technological "progress" which will include augmenting our bodies with the ligaments and muscles of gorillas, cheetahs, etc. as well as a cocktail of drugs and possibly computer chips and electrodes that perform better than our natural systems. that's the world we live in and fighting it is futile, but necessary. B+.

A Map For Saturday - first saw this documentary in a truncated form on mtv; that makes it one of the top 5 things of all-time to air on mtv. it's a great documentary about a man who quits his job and goes on a road trip around the world for a year. as someone who has traveled for a long period of time (though nothing close to what he did) i completely understood what it was like to be on the road for the first time and get the feeling of dread: "what the hell am i doing this for?" as well as the feelings of freedom and reluctance to join real society again. it encapsulates these feelings so much better than something like "into the wild" and does it without being pretentious or over-bearing or dishonest. silva-braga is honest about the pitfalls of life on the road and the niceties of a more conventional life. the truth, though, is that life on the road is a freeing, philosophical, wonderful way of life and people like me and him would probably choose to live it 6 months out of the year if we could afford it. this is a must see for anyone who has done, or is planning on doing, extensive traveling. B+.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed - everything that people claim a michael moore film is, and then some. it's truly bad propaganda without any intellectual honesty or real perspective. they weave in stock footage and film footage as a way of commentary on the topic at hand, thus making a judgment without having ben stein actually say anything. the highlight of the film was linking darwinism and nazism. what the nazis did, they said, wouldn't have been possible without the ideas of darwin. of course this is wrong for a number of reasons (eugenics is flawed in part because evolution is about the positive effects of genetic mutation, which the nazis clearly rebuked), but stein doesn't care to think too much about this (or anything). the film is all about making loose associations and weak critiques of evolution and academia in an effort to make "intelligent design" a more tractable concept. it's not that i'm interested in hearing the ideas argued on their own merits, but this film doesn't even touch the science in any real way. stein clearly fancies himself a cross between the wit and political hell raising talents of michael moore and the science and likability of the new al gore; but he's not even close to either of them. when someone wants to make a documentary that honestly looks at the shortcomings of evolution and the theories of intelligent design then i'll watch it. this film isn't that at all. D-.

Street Kings - exceeded expectations. this is probably the role of keanu reeves' lifetime. some would say that that's not saying much, but, to be fair, he's been in some good films and done well in a few of them - parenthood and the matrix being the two standout examples. here, he actually looks like an actor with some depth and something more beyond his simple face. he's generally the kind of actor who acts very literally and leaves little to the imagination, but here he allows you to read his performance, rather than hearing it. that is, when he's stewing inside he doesn't overdo it by saying "gosh i'm so angry right now" or by overacting, he just acts, and that's an accomplishment. kidding aside, it's a good performance by a notoriously subpar actor.
the writing, by james ellroy, is as good as you would expect. it grabs you almost right away (though, the alarm clock beginning is (i'm told) cliché) and never lets go. i once wrote a story that began with the protagonist waking up to an alarm clock and everyone in the class said that it was a cliché way to begin a story. wonder if those assholes would have told ellroy (author of l.a. confidential) the same thing. B.

21 - definitely cliché from time to time. it starts with a lame intro about the origins of the term "winner winner, chicken dinner" and it gives us a little preview of what our protagonist (ben) is goes through during the next two hours. the end, too, is cliché to the point of extreme predictability and, if you know anything about movies, you may as well skip the last 15 minutes because you know how everything's going to turn out anyway. that said, this film has some B+ moments that lift its overall grade. the relationship between kevin spacey and the overachieving m.i.t. students who feed off of his acceptance and the thrill of doing something other than burying their noses in books, is an interesting one. spacey is devilish and you can see why a naive (yet brilliant) college student like ben would fall for him. spacey's performance ebbs and flows as he manipulates the students to his needs. he feeds their egos as the carrot and threatens expulsion as the stick. the film also does a good job of depicting the allure of fast money and an alternative lifestyle for these bookish kids.
it's got plenty of little film references throughout the film, and the more you know about movies the more you're likely to notice them. for example, spacey's character is named mickey rosa which might be a nod to the late miklos rozsa, the film composer. spacey's character asks a question of his class and makes the famous ben stein/ferris bueller reference. there are plenty of others as well.
i can't say that i'd recommend the film, but if you happen to find yourself in the theater looking for a second film to watch then go ahead and check this one out. the film did make me want to read the book, even more so than the npr story they had on this group of students a few years back. C+.

Maltese Falcon - not as good as the big sleep for one reason: mary astor, or lauren bacall if you prefer. mary astor isn't foxy and she's not all that convincing as a femme fatale here so bogey is left to carry the film with the help of greenstreet, cook jr., and lorre. in the big sleep, bacall matches bogey's greatness and they elevate the film together. here, bogey plays the ultimate realist/pessimist (depending upon your perspective). to me he reflects the character he is opposite. he's raging when he meets greenstreet (who is outwardly calm, but raging inside), he has a sly, devilish smile when he's with astor (which reflects her inner deceptive nature), and he gets rough with elisha cook jr. (who wants to be calm and cool like bogey, but is inwardly raging like greenstreet).
loved huston's economical direction and the male performances. the script is great as well. it's a great film all-around. A.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days - it took a while to get here and it's got kind of a dumb title, but it's a great film.
the film starts with a shot of two goldfish in a bowl and you know right away that it's going to be a look inside the world of two people. this first shot, incidentally, is the key to understanding the last shot which is pulled off quite well. the film follows two roommates as they go about getting an abortion for one of them. you don't know right away that this is what they're setting out to do, but the hints are there and you'll suspect this is their goal before it's explicitly revealed.
it's shot in a very slow cinema verite style to accentuate the ordeal the two women go through in accomplishing their task. there aren't any unnecessary cuts and a few of the scenes last 5-10 minutes without any break. one of my favorites occurs at one of the girls' boyfriend's house where his mom is celebrating her 48th birthday. the scene shows the cultural climate of romania as well as highlighting the differences between the girl and her boyfriend. mungiu isn't afraid to show anything in the film. he doesn't shy away from topics and images that most media avoid or talk around. he explores every facet of getting an illegal abortion (and more) - the procedure itself, the payment, what to do with the fetus afterwards, etc. - with equal aplomb and honesty.
it's a fascinating film with some admittedly slow parts, but it's worth slogging through the first 20 minutes to get to know the characters and experience what they experience. one of the best new films i've seen in a while. B+.

Crimes And Misdemeanors - next to annie hall this is probably my favorite woody allen picture. it has the serious philosophy and moral difficulties of match point and cassandra's dream (vise versa actually) and some of the humor you'd expect from a woody allen picture. the film's serious center revolves around the dialectic between idealism and reality. the idealistic characters (sam waterson the blind (literally and metaphorically) rabbi and woody allen the principled documentary filmmaker) don't fare well, while the so-called realists (martin landau, alan alda, etc.) make various compromises and make out just fine.
when match point came out people said it was a very different film for woody allen. in truth, it was essentially just a remake of half this film. the same could be said for cassandra's dream. this film, though, is better than both because it's deeper, more well filmed and has even more meat to it. speaking of the cinematography - sven nykvist worked with bergman for much of his career and joins forces with allen here. he's usually lauded for his use of light, but here his use of space is what's most impressive. he moves the camera in and out of spaces well and uses space to convey emotions. my favorite example is probably when allen sees his former crush after her visit to london. the camera is tight on allen when he sees her enter and zoomed out when it shows her with (allen's nemesis) alan alda. it cuts back and forth between the two shots a couple times, but keeps this scale to emphasize her distance from him. it perfectly summarizes his feelings toward her at that moment. great film. A-.

Who Killed The Electric Car? - not exactly thorough with its science, nor honest in depicting the full spectrum of problems associated with the electric car. they paint the car as a panacea and ham up its "death." they don't give an honest assessment of the electric car's impact - from batteries in landfills to increased strain on the power grid. that said, the film does point out the inevitable reluctance of society when it comes to change. it also shows hydrogen fuel cells as the false hope that they are: too expensive, no fuel station infrastructure, hybrid technology is already more viable, etc. ultimately there are some good points to the film, but i didn't like that they played a little fast and loose with some of the facts, glorified the electric car too much, and simplified the entire debate. for example. they pointed out that the short range (70-80 miles) of electric cars means they aren't for everyone, only 90% of the population which commutes under 60 miles a day. while this is probably true it assumes that all people do with their car (their second largest investment, behind their homes) is commute to and from work. i fit into that 90% because my commute is less than 10 miles a day, but, like many people i know, i like to take an occasional trip to lassen, tahoe, los angeles, etc. and all those places require travel through hills over distances much greater than 80 miles. it's kind of like saying the average person watches 4 hours of tv a day so they only need a tv that can play programs for 5 hours a day. what about july 4th when there's a twilight zone marathon or the times when they want to see the unedited version of das boot, which is over 5 hours long, or the times when there are back to back football games? who wants to spend $34-44,000 (the cost of the car according to wikipedia) for a car that only works for most of your uses? perhaps with time demand will increase and costs will be driven down. hopefully range increases as well and then the electric car will finally be truly viable. C+.

A Christmas Story - captures the essence of childhood vis a vis christmas better than any film in history. the writing and diction are amazingly good and rich and colorful and effective. the film takes a child's point of view and does so to great effect. everything is bigger, more important, greater, more disappointing, more haunting, etc. than it is as an adult. consequently, when you watch this film as a child you relate to it and are drawn in to the story, and when you watch it as an adult you recall with fondness the simpler times when your world revolved around christmas or getting THE gift, rather than paying your rent, shitty bosses, traffic, politics, a failing marriage, war, health problems, etc. time is completely different as a child, as well. some parts seem to last forever and some not long enough. some memories are vivid and detailed, others are frayed and fragmented. the film captures these experiences well.
unlike films like goonies, as good as that film is, this film doesn't glamorize the relationships that kids have. personally, i always wish i had the friendships that are portrayed in films like the sandlot or goonies, but those never occurred and i suspect that the reality is that very few people have had those kinds of experiences. the truth is that kids rat each other out and abandon each other with ease. ralphie and friends leave flick out in the cold with his tongue stuck to a frozen pole. when the bullies confront them later in the film they leave another of their friends to fend for himself. these are the realities of childhood and it's neither inglorious nor profound, it's just how it is.
the music is great, as it is in any great film. stuff like excerpts from peter the wolf is used well.
i never noticed before that the chinese restaurant was an old bowling alley. the "w" on the sign is out and they apparently ran with it, calling the restaurant "bo ling." nice touch.
the film also depicts the reality of breaking your xmas gift on xmas. while ralphie doesn't technically break the rifle the day he gets it, there is a bit of a minor disaster caused by the new toy. this certainly resonates with me as i seemed to always have some problem on christmas with one of my toys.
great film for all ages, certainly one of the best christmas movies ever. die hard and it's a wonderful life are also in the running, though those aren't strictly xmas films. A+.

There Will Be Blood - name another person with two p.t. anderson films in his/her top 25 and i'll concede that they might be a bigger fan of his work than i. i haven't met such a person, though, so forgive me if i say that i'm the biggest p.t. anderson fan i've ever met.
perhaps it's self-delusion or fantastic hubris, but i think critics and "experts" are strictly for the birds. in everything from music and film to food and sports i think experts are bullshit artists, idiots, incompetent morons who lack taste, fore-sight, courage, and the tell it like it is spirit that made me look up to my grandfather so much. with "there will be blood" the so-called experts are 8-10 years behind the curve in calling this "breathtaking," (wash. post) a "masterpiece," (onion), "The Great American Movie" (la weekly), #80 of all-time (imdb.com voters), the best character study in film since citizen kane (film threat), etc. those accolades weren't meant for this film as much as they were meant for boogie nights, or p.t. anderson's true masterpiece, and the film that even he says he will not likely top: magnolia.
this film isn't epic or masterful, it's actually fairly uninspired and hollow and that's something i never thought i'd say about a film directed by someone i (still) consider one of the few great active directors of my generation. the single biggest thing that makes this true is its lack of character development, which is unfortunate considering the acting talent and surprising considering the writing/directing talent of anderson. what's more is that the film doesn't have the hope or moral center that his previous films have had. nor does it have the sympathetic protagonist or sense of purpose that his other works have had. no, this is a dark film for dark times, but it's dark without purpose. when daniel day-lewis verbally rips apart his son and, later, his adversary it doesn't feel heart-wrenching or triumphant, it feels like nothing. those around me laughed, i waited for something real to happen. some around me may have cried, i sat and waited to feel. nothing.
the film's opening 30 minutes had me completely, the following two hours only had me in jerks and spurts.
there's something about the names in the film that probably has some significance, but i couldn't decipher it. the two main characters (dano and day-lewis) are named paul (at one point anyway, later he's named eli) and daniel, as are the people who play them. there's also the father who is named abel, but i didn't see a cain and the father didn't have much significance so...? then there's his son (h.w.) and the businessman who tells him to retire a wealthy man and take care of his son, this man's name is h.m. tilford. of course there's also the protagonist - daniel plainview whose motive are never in plainview and is hardly ever easy to get a true hold of.
it does remind me a bit of citizen kane and i've heard this comparison made on the radio advertisements. it's not like citizen kane in terms of quality or putting a filmmaker on the map or anything like that. rather it's a portrait of a great man who is a tragic figure, at least that's the thought. it's really about a man whose kingdom is great and could be a tragic figure if we gave a damn. ebert puts it best: ""There Will Be Blood" is no "Kane" however. Plainview lacks a "Rosebud." He regrets nothing, misses nothing, pities nothing, and when he falls down a mine shaft and cruelly breaks his leg, he hauls himself back up to the top and starts again." the film never gives us the young kane, it never gives us michael corleone before he is forced to take over the family business. those are the things that make a character like this so tragic and touching. those glimpses of innocence (and thus innocence lost) are what give films like citizen kane and the godfather the labels "breathtaking," "epic," and "masterpiece" that the so-called experts have sloppily lumped onto this film. an epic without those glimpses and that contrast of character, that change in time, is like a p.t. anderson film without heart. oh, wait, that's exactly what this is. color me depressed. C.

It's A Wonderful Life - a truly fantastic film. capra took the lemons of the depression and made lemonade in the form of some of the greatest films of all-time (mr. deeds goes to town, mr. smith goes to washington, and it's a wonderful life). this one, though, goes to a darker place than the other two. sure, mr. smith shows the corrupted political machine, but none of the capra films i've seen go to that dark place that stewart inhabits so well in the film's penultimate act. stewart is just as excellent as the dark drunk as he is minutes later as the effervescent, smiling, laughing, boyish man in the end. an extreme few film actors have the range and effectiveness exhibited throughout stewart's career, much less within a single film as great as this one. to watch his desperate eyes when he appeals to the board of directors to vote to keep the building and loan business afloat or when he begs mr. potter (what a wonderful villain he is!) for the $8k he needs to keep the business afloat, is to watch an actor, a professional, a human at his peak. it doesn't get much better than stewart's performance here.
that said, i would be remiss if i didn't mention capra's role in selling this story for the perennial favorite that it is. look, the work of the beatles and capra and michelangelo don't have any inherent qualities that make it great in any absolute sense. rather, they brought forth a talent and artistry that happens to speak loudly and deeply to a great number of people across a great range of backgrounds. critics and street dwellers alike can appreciate the works of these artists and that's ultimately what matters: they appeal to just about everyone, in a deep fashion, throughout time. capra's direction in the aforementioned three films is about as good as anyone's work in any three films. they're life-affirming, positive, strong pictures which, to me anyway, are amazingly uplifting without being cliché or mawkish. to toe that line so effectively and do produce those films during a time when the country needed them is inspiring. A+.

Lions For Lambs - a patriotic and affirming film that avoids being jingoistic. it follows three storylines each with a pair of characters who are involved in the war on terror in some way. one pairing is a college professor (redford) and one of his students; another follows two soldiers (luke and pena); and the last follows a reporter (streep) and a republican party leader (cruise). the three storylines felt a bit like: apt pupil, jarhead and network respectively. each storyline was compelling in some way and the whole film was well-written. it addresses the issues of the war, both on the battlefield, and homefront (both from the perspective of the planners and academics who analyze it). cruise's character is closest to a villain and he drew plenty of boos and hisses from the audience, but through most of the film i felt his voice was an important one. in the end, though, it is revealed that his plan for the war in afghanistan is essentially a selfish move towards the presidency. demonizing him was probably the biggest misstep of the script. it certainly makes the valid point that we shouldn't get fooled again by those in power (the lambs of the title), but, with regards to the wars we are currently fighting, i felt he took a position that is underrepresented: fully acknowledging the massive failures of past policies, but knowing that pulling out would only end in chaos and a power vacuum.
the other storylines, meanwhile, challenge the viewer by essentially asking what they're doing about the situation. it rightly points out that those in power bank on our apathy and love of the trivial (celebrity gossip, video games, etc.) and not so trivial, but still relatively minor (getting a job, getting out of debt, etc.).
as expected, redford's direction was overdone. a strong and important film nonetheless, anchored by solid writing and good performances. B+.

Last Laugh - features a wonderful performance from emil jannings. meryl's film textbook alleges that the porter essentially gets a dose of his own medicine when he is fired and relegated to the role of a lowly bathroom attendant. in the early part of the film he receives accolades from his neighbors and a glass of water from a younger porter, but these things i see as signs of respect, and he doesn't seem to take the treatment for granted. he doesn't show them the same callous indifference that he is showed by bathroom goers that ignore him after his demotion. he greets his neighbors with pride, he comforts a bullied child outside his home and admonishes the other children for their poor treatment of the smaller girl. to me, the porter is the everyman - he takes pride in his work, is a decent citizen and is respected by his co-workers and neighbors. those who shun and ignore him after his demotion are the villains of the film.
the movie is wonderfully filmed - the camera moves in ways you don't normally see in a 20s film. when it isn't moving its static state allows a story to be told (e.g. the opening scene near the revolving door, signaling the forthcoming change). murnau has a way of making very sympathetic characters, tabu is another of his films that is successful in this way.
i wasn't a huge a fan of the ending. if you buy the premise that he's getting a taste of his own medicine then i suppose it makes sense on some level, but it is still an overly obvious device. i think that murnau calls attention to the author here to have his cake and eat it too. he acknowledges that the grim reality is that the porter would have nothing to live for and would be miserable for the rest of his life, but he also acknowledges the commercial realities and gives the audience what it wants - a happy ending. in doing so we are forced to ask questions about happy endings in general and why they typically satisfy our "bleeding hearts." why do we hope for the fantasy turn of events that murnau depicts here? don't we know it's pure artifice? we do, and yet we still accept them. why?
a thoughtful and heartfelt film. B+.

Into The Wild - there will likely be spoilers in this review...
i don't like emile hirsch or sean penn so i was really hoping that the film succeeded in spite of them. my hope went unfulfilled. this movie was bad in almost every single way and i say that not only because i liked the book so much more. i actually think that if i hadn't read the book i would have disliked the film even more. the reason being that i was able to enjoy chris (the protagonist) as a character at least somewhat in the film because i had read the book. had i not read the book i think i would have disliked his character. sean penn and emile hirsch's representation of chris lacked much of the nuance, intelligence, purpose and impact that he had in the book, and apparently in real life. for example, one of the most profoundly affecting interactions in the book is between chris and the old man in salton city. the old man asks chris to be his adopted son and this is depicted in the film and is one of the films few successes. what the film doesn't address, though, is that the old man prayed for the well-being of chris after he left. when he heard of chris' death, the man renounced god and took up drinking again after many sober years. this is the same man who was inspired by chris's words so much that he left his comfortable life of solitude and traveled on chris's advice.
the storytelling of the film was very herky-jerky. if i were to film the story i probably would have opted for a more linear telling with flashbacks to fill in pertinent background information as the story unfolded. in the book, krakauer tells the story out of chronological order and it works well, but he also chooses to give away chris's death on the cover. conversely, penn tells the story out of chronological order and doesn't reveal chris's fate until the end - an anti-climax if you ask me. penn also plays up the broken home angle to a startlingly degree. how much of his dramatization of chris's home life is true to life is unknown, but i think it goes beyond what is suggested in the book. perhaps he knows something krakauer didn't, or perhaps krakauer kept this element a little less developed than penn.
there were also minor errors in penn's telling of the story, but most of these are fairly forgivable. he depicts instant hunting success by chris when he goes to alaska, which wasn't at all the case. this is minor, but it depicts him as a natural, rather than showing the learning that chris had to do in a new situation. another minor error which actually bothered me was in the epilogue where penn states that moose hunters came across chris's body two weeks after his death. in fact, it was closer to three weeks (19 days to be exact) later that the moose hunters found chris's body. one the one hand this is a minor thing, but that point slices both ways. if it was so minor why couldn't he just get it right? my theory is that he wanted the death to see all the more tragic by showing that chris was only 2 weeks away from being rescued. it's just an unnecessary manipulation of our emotions. conversely, penn gets some of the minor elements right, minor points which can be especially appreciated by someone who has read the book. i finished reading the book just 15-20 minutes before the film started so it was especially fresh when penn shows the jeans patched by a blanket that chris wears in alaska.
hirsch's performance is another hindrance of the film. his performance just doesn't capture chris as the book depicted him. much of this was penn's awful writing and directing, but some of it can definitely be blamed on hirsh's "try hard" style of acting. he tries hard to depict his characters with sincerity, but he falls flat in every instance. he was so-so in the girl next door, awful as the titular character in alpha dog, and awful here. to be fair, it's a tough role to pull off. we need to see chris's intelligence without having him come off as pedantic or cocky. we need to see his intensity and passion without making him appear like some crazy treehugger. we need to see the principled young man who is striking out on his own, but he can't come off as pious or a rebel.
as someone who has been on several road trips and lived on the road for varying periods of time and gone hitchhiking and train jumping and lived on a glacier i feel somewhat qualified to comment on "life on the road." penn's depiction of this life did almost nothing for me and probably even less for someone who doesn't have actual experience to draw upon. the film was artistically shot and had a lot of pensive space to it, which is true to the experience, but it somehow didn't translate to a realistic depiction of life on the road. times when we see chris on his own are often too cutesy (him talking to himself or his food, etc.) or too falsely profound (him floating downstream naked in a jesus christ pose, etc.).
eddie vedder's soundtrack was mostly pretty good, but i think an ambient or postrock soundtrack would have been even better. the cinematography had some nice moments.
with all that sean penn did wrong, he did one thing that worked amazingly well for me: he gave me a quality photograph of chris. it's the same one that's in the front of the book, but that one is too small and grainy and is in black and white. seeing it more clearly and in color and on a 30 foot tall screen was like seeing chris for the first time and it brought me near tears. i see a lot of him in me and feel as though, with my principled take on life and hatred for many elements of humanity, i could have become him had a couple things gone differently. hopefully the movie will inspire people to read the book, because the movie really doesn't do justice to chris the way the book does. of course that could be a byproduct of books in general. they give an idea of a person, but you don't actually see that person move and talk the way you do in a film. it may be that the people who knew chris could watch the film and find it to be extremely accurate, in which case my reading of the book would have been completely off base. you can make up your mind, but i encourage you to read the book first. D.

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang - fantastic film. the camera movement and placement complement the themes of oppression, solidarity (amongst the convicts), isolation (of the protagonist), etc. extremely well. cool hand luke coincides with this film in a few ways. in both films you have the newcomer who is befriended by the oldtimer. the newcomer escapes twice - once by fleeing while going to the bathroom in the bushes and once by jumping in a dump truck, this time bringing the oldtimer along. difficult as it may seem, this film is actually darker than cool hand luke, and though it predates the official beginning of the film noir movement (which people tend to place at 1941 with the release of citizen kane), i think this film should be considered a film noir because of its dark themes, dark cinematography, and the presence of one of the more unabashedly evil femme fatales.
the film's ending brings me near tears every time and is one of the more depressing commentaries on the state of the nation/society/humanity committed to film. it's profound in its simplicity and it wipes away any slow or less than perfect moments the film may have towards the end. paul muni's performance is fantastic in every way so long as you are able to appreciate the differing style of the time. that said, his sometimes expressionistic performance is less so than that of the femme fatale (played by glenda farrell) and his brother (hale hamilton). it's a pre-code film so you might be surprised by some of the sexual innuendo and brutality relative to films of the time. besides railing against the criminal penal system the film also touches upon race, class, justice, and power structures. in spite of all the heaviness of the film, it does have a comic element to it that is easy to overlook. there are a few laughs in here that keep the film balanced and interesting.
undoubtedly one of the best films of film's first 50 years. A+.

Invasion - i've seen all four of the films that are cut from the cloth of the original finney novel and this is probably the most intellectually stimulating of them. the 78 version had the best ending, the 56 version gets points for being the first and being the most tightly directed of them all. the 93 version by abel ferrara is the worst of the bunch.
this one is directed by german-born oliver hirschbiegel who directed das experiment and the downfall. and even though i haven't seen the downfall i can safely say that all three of these films are at least in part about the psychology of humans in groups. group-think is attacked consistently in "invasion" and "das experiment," and i would assume "downfall" (which is about the fall of the nazi empire) as well. in the invasion the individual and personal choice are upheld in spite of the many negative manifestations such as conflict (iraq war), corruption, and unhappiness. it essentially puts forth that liberty and individuality should be preserved in spite of promises of safety and peace. this ties in perfectly with the current domestic and international climate; and this is exactly what i like so much about this series of remakes: each one highlights the issues and fears of the time in its own novel way.
some people aren't calling this a remake of the 56 version in the same sense that the 78 and 93 versions are. i'm not really sure why. it has similarities in the story (falling asleep makes the transformation take root, they all follow a man and woman, police/military play a critical role in the spreading of the disease, etc.) and the telling thereof (begins at the end, etc.). one should note, though, that the first two took place in california, the third was on a military base (in alabama i think), and this one was placed in d.c....perfect for the themes addressed. B+.

Shooter - a surprisingly bold film in some ways. it's about an elite military sniper (wahlberg) who is left for dead during a covert mission. disillusioned, he moves to the country and becomes a mountain man. one day a colonel (glover) comes to him to convince him to help them detect the weaknesses of a security detail for a speech the president is giving in philadelphia. turns out that this was just a ruse to play him for a patsy. luckily, wahlberg escapes and vows revenge.
it's a bold film because it's not entirely flattering of the military or u.s. military/foreign policy. though it holds the individual gun-toting patriot up on a pedestal, it's not at all supportive of the status quo. all that said, it's a very american film, for better or worse. it covers the power of american-patriotism, the manifestations of american foreign policy, the survivalist conspiracy nuts in the woods, the corrupted f.b.i. and politicians, etc. in a way it reaffirms the negative aspects of political power in this country, but also gives hope that there are enough nuts and patriots out there to keep the government in check if push ever really came to shove. good flick. B.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated - documentary by kirby dick, who did chain camera, derrida and sick; in other words, by a guy who's done good stuff that most people haven't even heard of, but is fairly good nonetheless. this documentary tackles the mpaa which is the body responsible for film ratings. it's a secretive group in that the members are unknown to the public, yet they are extremely influential in a monetary sense because the difference between an r-rated and nc-17 film is huge. they don't mention this, but according to my research the highest-grossing nc-17 movie of all-time is showgirls and it only did $20.4 million. they look a bit into the history of film censorship by bringing on david l. robb (author of operation hollywood) and talking about the hays production code. it's compelling stuff overall, and i think that can be said for even the casual film fan, in part because it sheds light on free speech and censorship issues. the film also looks at the inconsistency of the rating system and the way in which the board gives tougher ratings to films with gratuitous sex than those with gratuitous violence.
i did find one misrepresentation which portrayed the scene in american pie where jason biggs pleasures himself with the pie. the film showed the unrated version of that scene and portrayed it as the r-rated, theater version when making a comparison to another film which initially received an nc-17 rating for a similar scene. in the r-rated version he's got the pie against his crotch while he's standing, in the un-rated version he's on the island humping the pie; this is the version that the board rejected and this is the scene that kirby dick depicted as "being okay" with the mpaa. B.

Sicko - with any michael moore film review there is a blurring of the typical film review lines. for example, does one review the validity of his argument or his public persona or the film's technical and artistic merits? i suppose it's appropriate to include all of the above so long as it's balanced and one remembers that the film should be the primary subject.
sicko looks at the broken healthcare system in america. luckily moore has chosen, this time, to look at an issue where everyone can agree on the fundamental premise (that being that our healthcare system is fundamentally flawed and is not working, especially for the unemployed (like me) and poor (also like me). he compares our system to that of canada, france and england and reaches the conclusion that their system is more equitable and more in keeping with the spirit of healthcare. i couldn't agree more. in doing this, though, he smoothes over some of the consequences of our system and their systems. for example, our system encourages more investment and development because there is more money to be had. meanwhile, the canadian system does lack the quantity of high tech equipment and does sometimes have large queues for more serious procedures such as hip replacement surgery. we also have a lower tax burden than many other countries with "socialized" healthcare systems (including the three aforementioned nations), and some would argue that there no such thing as a free lunch in this regard. i think it would have been useful to examine the more privatized systems of germany and australia because i think they would be more palatable to middle america, but maybe i'm wrong.
we see less of moore in this film than in his others, and i think this is by design. there was a backlash against him, even by those on the left, after things like the roger and me controversy (which he denies) and some of the facts in bowling for columbine and fahrenheit 9/11 being refuted or shown as being misleading. personally i don't know that i buy the roger and me criticism, and i don't give too much weight to the bfc and f9/11 stuff, but i do fault him on a personal level for abadoning ralph nader. so, yes, even i have a bone to pick with the guy these days. moore is still seen in the film, but his ideas and his persona are less the focus of sicko than they have been in his other films. given the public's opinion of moore, this is probably a good thing for the film.
tonally the film is less comedic than his previous films have been. sure, it has some comedic elements, but it seems that moore has lost a bit of his sense of humor in the years between sicko and fahrenheit 9/11. this was reinforced by his performance on the letterman show i saw recently when he was pitching the movie. he just seems more sullen and beaten. then again, i guess we all are after 6+ years of bush junior. the film still brings the same pathos that all his work as had. he does it with anecdotal evidence, but i think that the anecdotes, in this case, confirm a suspicion we all hold and confirm other anecdotes we've heard about insurance companies and the healthcare system. i think everyone knows someone who has been screwed by the healthcare system in the same way (preexisting condition, no prior approval of procedure, etc.) that the people in the film were.
overall i think the film does a good job of sparking the debate and offering some perspective and solutions for our healthcare problems. it's a safer film in some respects, than his previous two, but moore still has it in him...B+.

An Unreasonable Man - recently i had dinner with my grandmother and a couple of her friends. shortly before the dinner the issue of the 2008 presidential campaign came up and one of the guests remarked that she hoped nader would not run again. this is a sentiment that has been echoed by just about everyone i've talked with about the subject of nader or the 2008 race. democrats hate him and blame him for the outcome in 2000 and republicans hate him because of his leftist (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!) agenda. later in the dinner the same woman stated that she would vote for hillary unless someone better came along. one of the things she said about hillary struck me - she cited hillary's commencement speech at wellesley in 1969 and said "that's who hillary is, and that's who she'll be if she's president." it struck me as a nice thought, but not altogether realistic. the speech was given almost 40 years ago and hillary has, like her husband, adjusted her stance according to the polls so many times that i doubt even she knows what she really stands for anymore. it reminds me of kerry and what he once was and what he's turned out to be. some remember the kerry who was a vigorous opponent of the vietnam war and others remember the more recent kerry who wasn't nearly as outspoken at the beginnings of the iraq war and never called for our troops to be pulled out of iraq when he was running for president in 2004.
on the other hand you have a man like ralph nader, who currently is who he has always been - a man of principles and conviction. he's also the most maligned figure cut from the cloth of cesar chavez, mlk, and gandhi that i can think of. unlike kerry and clinton, most of his career has been unencumbered by running for office, which generally necessitates a compromising of one's principles under the guise of "compromise" and "moderation" in order to be more electable. through most of his political career he was issues-oriented, but this changed somewhat when he ran for president. i say somewhat because his campaigns have always been more about issues than being elected to office, so even when running for office, he was more about calling attention to issues than winning office.
the documentary looks at nader's public life beginning with his book "unsafe at any speed" and its origins. it ends, of course, with his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. it does a good job of presenting the opinions of people like eric alterman who hate nader for "losing the election for gore" in 2000 and balancing out that cock-eyed view with the facts and theories that support nader's campaigns in those years. this includes nader himself, a democratic harvard student who looked at where nader campaigned in 2000 (to determine if he wanted to be a spoiler), and his supporters and campaign workers. it presents the nader-as-spoiler debate as realistically and honestly as i can imagine, and as someone who has been fighting this fight since i voted for him in 2000 (and again in 2004), i found it refreshing.
a great documentary about a great man.  B+.

Gandhi - in my opinion, gandhi is a martyr and leader greater than jesus (because his legend obscures the facts and because of what's been done in his name). the film, rightly, begins by acknowledging that no single telling of a man's life can possibly do his work justice and, if you view the film in this way, it's a great picture. the film not only reveals the greatness of gandhi's message and deeds, but, ironically and maybe unintentionally, also shows the greatness of his chief rival - the british government. if not for the relative civility of the british government, gandhi would not have been able to flourish and succeed on the level that he did. if, for example, gandhi was battling the oppression of the nazi regime, he would be relegated to a mere paragraph in our history books. but because the british did, to some extent, respect and believe in their (admittedly flawed) laws, gandhi was able to succeed in helping free india. again, this is ironically a victory for the british, though they may not see it that way.
the final act of the film shows gandhi as two things: the country's conscience and a leader whose time has passed. when he fasts for internal peace, both muslims and hindi comply because of their collective respect for this great man. but i see this as a blip, especially with the hindsight we have here in 2007. when it comes to the war of uniting muslims and hindi, gandhi was vastly outmatched. an adversary like the british government, for all its brute military strength, is nothing when compared to the ideological divide of muslims and hindi people. fighting that battle was likely beyond his ability, even if he were to have lived to attempt to tackle it in earnest. B+.

U.S. vs. John Lennon - maybe i'm just too jaded or i can't be affected anymore, but this documentary didn't do much for me. john lennon was a good guy who helped make some amazing music, but he wasn't a prophet or an original thinker. in fact, he appears quite puerile in many of his interviews. he dismissively attributes his always getting in trouble with the way his face looks, speaks of an imaginary land called "newtopia," and when pressed on how many lives he thinks he's actually saved, points out that they sing his songs at rallies. he toys with the media, but part of me wondered how much of that was a defense. also, if not a defense, why not engage the media with real ideas and real answers? the john lennon in this film was a thinker, but not a serious political activist, in spite of what the film's interviewees wants you to believe. if you look at his political philosophy and legacy from the forest perspective (as opposed to looking at the individual trees), then you see a man with conviction and principles. i don't think that his principles are all that realistic, but one still must appreciate his idealism.
the title is somewhat misleading because it sets the documentary up as a chronicle of the battle between lennon and the united states. while this was certainly addressed, it was more a biography than anything else. the fatal flaw of lennon, like it is with many great people, is that his family life wasn't as peachy as some would make it seem. in fact, looking at the documentary his family life was brilliant, the only problem is that it only included three people - him, yoko and sean. whatever happened to his first born, julian? yoko specifically excludes him in the conversation of their perfect family saying it was a great time when sean was born (julian would have been 12 at the time) and that the three of them were very happy. guess no one's perfect. C+.

Messengers - didn't expect much from this latest pang brothers (eye, eye 2, etc.) effort, but was pleasantly surprised. the film draws from sources as disparate as the grudge, dark water, the others, and amityville horror, yet isn't cliche.
the framing of many shots helped keep your eyes moving and your mind guessing. for example, if, in a horror film, we see a woman walking from left to right and looking behind her (to the left part of the screen) and the frame doesn't show any space to the right, then you can expect that she will walk into someone or that something will scare her from the right part of the screen. this is fundamental horror film directing. the pang brothers use that knowledge of the audience to keep things tense without having to use up a scare. so, you might have the protagonist as described above, but the frame will vary - sometimes centering her face, sometimes framing her face to the right (to indicate a scare is imminent) and sometimes framing her face to the left of the screen. this creates an ebb and flow of the audience's inner tension. it's somewhat like having the music get tighter and louder as if to indicate something is about to happen, but then not having anything happen; only more subtle and smart. they do all sorts of things in the framing and editing that keep the audience "on the edge of their seats;" to employ a cliche.
another thing they will do is edit on movement, rather than waiting for something to come to rest. editing on movement is a great technique that can be used in all genres of film, if employed correctly. in dreamgirls it was done poorly, in an almost obligatory fashion. in die hard, it is used perfectly to keep up the energy level and make the film more dynamic. here it is used to keep the film scary. horror film audiences are somewhat more savvy than most. not because they're smarter or anything, but because there's just an intuition that is developed through seeing a lot of horror films. so, in order to really scare these people, you need to mix things up. cutting on movement is one of the things this film uses to do that.
while i enjoyed the direction of the film, i felt the script could have used some work. there were some bad lines and the story had some trite elements. overall, though, it was a pretty good flick with some nice direction. B.

Dreamgirls - i wonder what musical has the greatest percentage of the film taken up by songs. i'm not talking music, like koyaanisqatsi which has a score running through 100% of the film, nor am i talking merely about singing, like umbrellas of cherbourg which has all of its dialog sung. rather, i'm talking about individual songs within the film. i'd venture a guess that about half this film is comprised of one song or another.
this film is awful from the first lines to the last. the first lines are some forced b.s. given by a woman who is storming away in a cab. danny glover, eddie murphy's manager, chases her down and begs her to stay to sing backup for murphy. she says something like "i have his number...his phone number...to his house....where his wife is." it's supposed to be sassy and smart and indicate what kind of philanderer eddie murphy is, but it comes off as forced and written, rather than naturalistic. really, though, this is the nature of the beast. musicals can't be natural or real because their entire basis is on fantasy. the great musicals either rein this in and use the musical form in expressionistic and organic ways (music man, my fair lady, sound of music) or roll with the art form (willy wonka and the chocolate factory, mary poppins). this film tries to do both and thus it fails. the over-hyped acting is so-so at best, the dialogue is awful, most of the music is okay, the direction is straight out of the opening sequence of the jay leno show, and the story has been told a million times.
as bad as this film was it wasn't the worst one that was playing at the theater. about an hour and a half through the film, during one of the many lengthy songs i left the theater intending to never return. i walked into a theater that was playing epic movie and sat down for about five minutes. in this five minutes i realized that watching the last hour of that movie was even less appetizing than watching the final 40 minutes of dreamgirls, and so i returned to my seat and toughed it out. from justin to kelly is another film with an (actually two) american idol in a major role. the thing that made that movie more entertaining, though, was that it was shorter, bad in a funny way, and had lower expectations. that said, this film had better songs and a message. D-.

Seven Samurai - lots ot say about this film, but it's probably all been said before. it belongs amongst the top 4 films (citizen kane, vertigo, rules of the game being the others) of all-time from a critical standpoint. of those four films, this one is my favorite.
from a macro perspective the two things that strike me the most about this picture are the storytelling and characters. to me, kurosawa is one of the best storytellers in film. when i first watched this film i was a bit turned off by the 207 minute running time. this time around, though, it didn't phase me. i attribute this to two things: kurosawa's storytelling and my recent string of long films which may have increased my endurance in this category. much is made over the pacing of kurosawa's storytelling - that he contrasts quick scenes with longer ones and that the pace of the film increases as it wears on. frankly, i haven't noticed that, but i assume they're right. to me, the success of his storytelling isn't any magic formula of alternating short and long sequences or shortening the length of scenes as the film progresses (though i'm sure that has an effect), rather it is about his ability to constantly reveal new wrinkles in the plot and characters to keep the audience interested. the story never stagnates and characters are never static. we learn about a farmer's (yohei) daughter early in the film, then we see that he doesn't have a wife and then we see what has become of the wife. this is just one strand of the stories that make up the entire film. it's this same ever-changing dynamic that makes the godfather such a compelling film, even at three hours long.
in my reviews i make no secret that i am primarily drawn to films with compelling characters. plot, cinematography, music, mise-en-scene, etc. are all essential, obviously. but characters drive great films and the rest is there to complement, supplement, or contrast those characters. seven samurai has a host of interesting characters, chief among them is toshiro mifune (kikuchiyo). it would be easy for a detractor of this film to minimize and simplify mifune's character since he dances about like such a buffoon at times, but this would be missing the point. mifune represents both the samurai and farmer world, yet he doesn't truly belong to either. this sad reality is most poignantly expressed when he grabs a screaming child from his mother's dying arms. he looks down at the child and then at a fellow samurai and remarks "this child is me" (an orphan of farmer because of raiding by bandits). it may be the best part of the film because, as is often true with kurosawa, it concisely summarizes what would take most good directors an entire film to convey, and is beyond the grasp of the average director. mifune is such a great director not only because he is able to inhabit and round out each character he portrays, but also because of the range of characters he has done this with. in rashomon he plays a few versions of a bandit, here he is a wild samurai and the crux of the comic relief, yet also one of the most emotionally rewarding characters in the film, in sanjuro/yojimbo he plays an extremely capable ronin, in red beard an old doctor, etc. he's one of my favorites.
strangely, and not so strangely, the film that seven samurai reminds me of the most is the grapes of wrath. strangely because the occur hundreds of years (1930s vs. 1586) and thousands of miles apart. not so strangely because both have farmers at the core of the film and because kurosawa was a great admirer of john ford's. their endings are also similar. in the grapes of wrath ma joad remarks that we (farmers) will always go on because we are the people and at the end of seven samurai kenbei shimada (played by the great takashi shimura) remarks that the samurai have lost and that the farmers have won. i presume he means that the farmers have won their freedom, but that the samurai, in completing their mission, have become ronin again; a commentary on the age in which they live and their line of work.
i have remarked before that no one films rain like kurosawa. i'd like to amend that to include rain AND wind. no matter how much it rains or how hard the wind blows in other films, it never looks as imposing or beautiful as it does in a kurosawa film, and seven samurai is as much a testament to that as anything else i've seen of his. weather is but another character in this film.
lastly, certainly some of the writing is lost/changed in translation, but the writing in this film is still something to wonder at. it's brilliant in its simplicity and language. just great. everyone has a different method of determining how good a film is. one i heard recently is applying this question: "would i see it again tomorrow?" yes. A.

Naked Spur - superego, id and ego battle it out here in this western starring just five people and directed by anthony mann. in addition to the three freudian characters, the film includes the classic devil on one shoulder (robert ryan) and angel (janet leigh) on the other.  james stewart (ego), millard mitchell (superego), and ralph meeker (id) round out the five member cast. while they play archetypes, they're not perfect representations.
the film is essentially about three men who are loosely aligned to bring in a convict (ryan) and his female companion (leigh) for a $5,000 reward. ryan works to pit each of the three against each other so that he may escape. mitchell plays the conscience of the three men, yet he falls victim to mitchell's plot first because of his lust for gold. as a parable the film is stimulating, though not as strong as some of the other mann/stewart collaborations.
naked spur opens with a shot reminiscent of winchester '73, has the mitchell character who recalls walter brennan and the lust for gold that appeared in far country (one year after naked spur was released), and it has meeker who is the evil, but capable, foil to stewart like arthur kennedy was in bend of the river. there are a couple rocky chase/shoot-out scenes that are also reminiscent of winchester '73's finale.
not clear on the meaning of the title. i think "naked" is in the sense of "naked aggression" - as in unadulterated and raw. "spur" being a western implement for motivation, particularly for lesser beings (horses). so perhaps the title indicates the base, selfish motivations of the characters. solipsism is a theme that is repeated in mann's westerns, so that might fit.
intellectually an interesting film, but it didn't really entertain like other mann films have. then again, i gave bend of the river just a "b" when i saw it the first time. perhaps this one will grow on me as well. mann's films do have a tendency to get better with repeated viewings. B.

Notes On A Scandal - for me, the primary attraction here is philip glass' score, but the writing and acting kept me interested. the film is told via a voice-over narrative given by dench and its detached, bitter, and isolated tone recall scorsese's taxi driver. glass' music serves to strengthen this tone and theme. his is a musical style that is perfectly matched to the dystopic vision of koyaanisqatsi, the obsession and dementia of notes on a scandal, the hours or secret window. his scores wouldn't work on the latest hollywood blockbuster or some period action film, but they work well with the aforementioned ideas. he should collaborate with clint mansell and darren aronofsky. the writing here is at the same level as it is in taxi driver, though it's not as good a film. the protagonist has a different, but similar, voice in notes on a scandal. they both have in common a dislike for the ordinary and for the bulk of humanity. they both pay particular attention to an individual female. where they differ, though, is in their unique way of expressing their views on society and social mores. travis bickle's narrative i find to be occasionally humorous (for example, when he mentions his choice of apple pie and a slice of yellow cheese: "i thought it a good choice"), but dench's narrative here is less humorous. that said, the film isn't devoid of humor.
besides the score and the writing, dench's performance is notable. blanchett's performance was good as well, but not oscar worthy in my opinion. then again, my choice for best supporting actress (vera farmiga) didn't even get nominated. dench's role is tougher because it shows greater range and is less likable. that, though, could be the subject of a personality test: who do you find more reprehensible in this film - dench or blanchett? both do bad things and both are tortured in some way, but one is portrayed as the victim. good film. B+.

Babel - usually when you think of the term "formula film" you think of hollywood blockbusters and action films that apply the tried and true formula of a strong hero, a damsel in distress, a nefarious villain, some love, lots of action, a comedic character and a plot twist. "formula film," though, can also be attributed to the films of inarritu (amores perros, 21 grams and babel).
in each of his films he plays with time and the interconnectedness of characters. amores perros was a genuinely good film because it was somewhat novel, well-filmed and well-acted. 21 grams was vastly overrated, pretentious and affected. babel continues where 21 grams left off. inarritu refuses to expand on his formula and, what's worse, doesn't even elicit any real, quality performances in the process. the "message," that we're all reliant upon each other and that we need to learn to listen and think a little more, is plain and topical. the music plays with negative space (the sound between the notes being played), which might be intellectually interesting if it wasn't so pretentious and awful. like crash, the plot must only be construed as allegorical because it's beyond unlikely and features so many stupid elements that to view it as realistic would be about as silly, and take as large a leap of faith, as being a fundamentalist christian (or, better yet, a scientologist).
it's so predictable that this film, despite its many flaws, would be liked by so many. it's somewhat like akeelah and the bee - nice enough idea, but poorly realized. frankly, i think that many people lack the ability to sense subtlety in storytelling and character development. a sham of a film. D.

West Side Story - holy crap, this movie won 10 academy awards. meanwhile pacino didn't get an award until he worked with a director by the name of martin brest (who later went onto direct gigli) on a film called scent of a woman. so, pacino=1 academy award, scorsese=0 academy awards, triple six mafia=1 academy award, west side story=10 academy awards.
i'm not generally a fan of musicals, so perhaps the film was doomed from the start, but i consider myself fairly objective and i do like robert wise (the co-director, whose other musical [the sound of music] received a B from me earlier this week) so i don't think the film really started with any great disadvantage. that said, it's basically trash from the opening frames. it's only redeeming qualities are its source material (shakespeare's romeo and juliet) and its art direction - the costumes and sets were nice enough. other than that the film is just way too over the top and gaudy for me. i think it's supposed to be some sort of modern take on shakespearean acting (i'm giving it the benefit of the doubt), but it doesn't work. the choreography and music aren't much to write home about either. the music isn't catchy (there's only one song i can even remember) and the dancing was some odd "street" interpretation of ballet. i put street in quotes because i doubt very much that anyone involved actually knows anything about the realities of the street; thus, any interpretation is a false one.
if you're in the mood for a musical watch music man instead. if you're in the mood for a film version of romeo and juliet watch baz luhrmann's romeo + juliet instead. if you're in the mood for a robert wise film watch the day the earth stood still instead. if you're the mood for a film from 1961 watch yojimo instead. you get the point...D.
Godfather - i'm pretty sure i watched this movie about 8-9 years ago, but i didn't remember anything other than the horse scene so perhaps i haven't. at any rate, i certainly didn't get as much out of it before as i did this time. it's a great film and it's one of those rare long films (just shy of three hours) that you don't mind watching. hoop dreams, magnolia and the great escape are the only films i really love that are around the three hour mark. my fair lady is up there too, but to a lesser extent.
the film unfolds so organically and tugs the viewer along ever so slightly. it doesn't move at a snail's pace and it doesn't wear you out with too much detail or minutiae, at the same time we get to know the characters well and we do see the nitty gritty of the business. there's always some danger lurking or some allegiance that is unsteady which keeps the viewer on his toes. of course the film is expertly directed and the acting and music all support the writing as well. it all comes down to the writing, though. the film comes full circle with the talia shire plotline - she is married in the opening scene and the final scene is the fallout after her husband's death. between these bookends we see everything that goes on within the family and its business. the writing is detailed - it shows the politics of the business as well as the fallout on the human end. we see the good and bad of what the godfather must do as a don. i think we ultimately like him for two reasons: because we know him more than his adversaries and because audiences always admire skillful characters.
seeing pacino's transformation in the film is one of the more rewarding parts of watching the film. it's rewarding because it's sad and moving and all those things we look for in film. pacino, as an actor, pulls it off perfectly. if it wasn't for this film there would likely not have been a goodfellas or casino. A.

Rocky V - definitely the worst of the series. this one, like the first, is directed by avildsen (who also did karate kid) and suffers as a result. i can honestly say that i prefer stallone's direction in rocky II to avildsen's direction in the first rocky and that sentiment carries to this installment as well. this one was released five years after the previous film, the largest gap between any of the first five films, and that may have something to do with its lack of success. the transition from one rocky jr. to the next was desirable, but too inconsistent. that is, the actor who played rocky jr. in rocky IV definitely needed replacing, but the actor who replaced him (stallone's actual son) didn't look anything like the last one. in a related complaint, the two films take place within less than a week of each other, yet rocky, adrian and their son look different (because of aging and a new actor).
these inconsistencies aside, the film lacks in the music department again as well. this isn't because of bill conti, though. rather, i think it's because of avildsen's own tastes. he inserts popular artists like snap, mc hammer and elton john (who sings the final song which is something about what it takes to be a man, i kid you not) and they really date the film. the film's nemesis is also inferior. there are actually two villains in the film - the over-anxious promoter and tommy "the machine" gunn, a boxer who is trained by rocky, but turns on him because of the promoter. neither is as interesting or well-executed as the opponents in any of the other films. tommy gunn is interesting on paper because he reflects a fluid, amoral version of rocky, but isn't well-cast or directed, and the promoter is just a cartoon character. the final fight sequence is much more reminiscent of the stupid brutality of 80s action films than of the art and character of the other rocky films.
the rocky jr. storyline seems misplaced in the series. again, i have to blame this on avildsen. with the right direction this storyline might have fleshed out the tommy gunn/rocky dynamic in a compelling way. D.

Rocky IV - i'm glad that i'm old enough to remember the cold war, the sentiments that it brought and the films it produced. films like this, war games, red dawn, etc. were as big in the 80s as in any other decade. by then the soviets had officially outpaced our military growth and tensions were high. in this installment rocky fights drago, a machine-like fighter who has been bred and trained to show soviet superiority. stallone, who directs, does a good job incorporating motifs of technology, machination and war to bolster the cold war theme. in the opening fight of drago and apollo creed, for example, drago is shown in the ring which is in a dark room. the ceiling opens up like a rocket hangar might and he and the ring are lifted up as if they are a single rocket being prepared for launch. we also see drago training on machines while hooked up to sophisticated devices measuring his vitals and power output. this is juxtaposed with rocky training in siberia (actually northwestern wyoming) using more organic methods - hauling logs, chopping wood, trudging through the snow, etc.
the biggest disappointment of the film is bill conti's absence. bill conti does the music for the other five rocky films, but didn't work on this one for some reason. as a result we miss out on the rocky theme in full splendor and the ending, in particular, lacks its usual weight. while the direction in rocky IV may have been better overall than in rocky III, rocky IV really loses some of its impact because of the music. i also could have done without the poorly cast rocky jr.
each rocky film that i've seen recently (all of them except for #5) has had at least one scene of profound thought or emotion; a scene worthy of remembering. in this film apollo creed's speech about doing what you're made to do is that scene. the final scene, in which rocky tries to find some balance between the soviet and american ways, is also worthy of mention. once again, his profound words succeed, at least in part, because of his simple nature. each rocky film is also able to add some wrinkle that makes his challenge in that film seem insurmountable. this is a bigger accomplishment than you might think. C+.

Cavite - the plot follows a muslim filipino-american man who has returned home after his father's death. shortly after arriving a cell phone, which has been placed in his backpack, rings and he is led by the voice on the line through a series of errands throughout the phillipine city Cavite. it is later revealed that everything is essentially leading up to a bombing which he must carry out or else his mother and sister will die.
it reminded me somewhat of "mysterious object at noon" in that the best thing about it may have been the documenting of the setting, rather than the plot and characters. so, one might say that strapping a camera to a dog's back and letting it roam around the Philippines for 80 minutes would have had the same effect. more or less. we see the deplorable conditions of the people - people pissing in the street, naked children living amongst trash, pollution, etc. these things are known to anyone who cares to read, watch documentaries, or pay attention. so what's the point?
the film also reminded me of films like se7en, phone booth, or many other films where a character is led by some insane person through a series of tasks. in most films, though, the end achieves some climax - a statement, an explosion, a death, a triumph, a defeat, a resolution, something. this film had none of that. the fruits of his journey don't materialize. the purpose of his mission is never made explicitly clear. we know basically who is leading him on this wild goose chase and we sorta know why, but none of it is all that satisfying. the mission doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense either. why a church? why does the terrorist want the protagonist to live? why does he promise to let his family live? these things seem contrary to the terrorist's own self-preservation. no witnesses, after all, is always preferable. perhaps that's the point, i'm not certain. we get that it's about terrorism and the protagonist's denial of his homeland, but what is the point of this? after all, it is true that the filmmaker, who plays the protagonist, hadn't even been to the Philippines since he was 9. if he's trying to make a statement about people running away from their problems, wouldn't this make him a hypocrite? if this isn't part of the film's message then why all the red herrings?
in the commentary the filmmakers focused primarily on the struggle to get the film promoted, as well as filipino response to the film. they stated that the younger generation was glad to see the film portray the Philippines accurately and the older generation took it as an affront to their country. the filmmakers, from what i heard (i skipped around the commentary for about 15 minutes), didn't address the actual purpose or thesis of the film. they did mention that they received positive praise from some muslims who thanked them for portraying muslims more accurately than is seen in many films. overall i think the film is supposed to be an indie-thriller take on munich. a film that is supposed to help convey the sentiments of the minority side. the terrorist orchestrating the whole thing mentions that he is from mindanao, which is a highly muslim area of the country. i think that it's all a reference to the violence that has occurred in that region and the tensions of the muslims (5% of the population) and...the rest of the country? the catholics (81% of the country)? i don't know enough to say. if the film's major purpose is to convey the point of view of the muslim terrorists it didn't do a very good job. if it's to justify their actions because of the poor living conditions, it did an even worse job. if it's to depict the poor living conditions as the backdrop of an indie take on a hollywood thriller (i heard the filmmakers reference two films in the commentary, both were hollywood thriller/dramas), then it did a bad and dishonest job. in their commentary they say that they didn't do anything to the images that they filmed in the city of cavite and let the images speak for themselves. there are a couple problems with that. first, they showed cavite, but only parts of it. we don't know what they left out, so we can't say that their depiction was completely indicative of the city. secondly, cavite isn't one of the larger cities in the country and probably isn't all that indicative of the majority of the population.
all these things, though, distract from the essence of the film. i don't know why they didn't talk about that in the commentary (so far as i could tell). the essence of my issue with the film is in its method. there are a lot of ways of getting across an idea, a lot of different symbols, perspectives, parables that can be employed. it didn't seem to me that the conceit was well-suited to what i perceived their message to be. that is, the story device of a man being led by a faceless (sorta) villain didn't seem to make sense for the any of the purposes that i can think of. a mess of a film. watch it if you want to try to make sense of it.
visually and stylistically it's basically the same as open water or the blair witch project; more the former. in other words, it's effective in getting across a gritty realism. C.

I, Robot - i love films like this and the matrix or terminator because they tap into my own fears and beliefs regarding the out-of-control nature of technology. thought i, robot (based upon an isaac isamov story) isn't as good as the aforementioned films, it does offer an interesting twist. unlike the techno-scare that takes place in the matrix or terminator, the one that takes place in i, robot isn't about self-preservation as much as it is about serving humans to the fullest degree. in terminator and the matrix a humans vs. machines dialectic is created because the machines develop a consciousness and don't want to be slaves any more. in i, robot the machines are bound by three laws, the first of which is to safeguard humans. gradually they develop a consciousness and realize that the best way to do this is to begin a revolution and take over control. by assuming complete control they can protect us from ourselves - the wars we wage, the suicidal behavior, etc. in a way they seek to become the ultimate government. though they're not elected, they have been supported by the majority of society within the film. almost everyone has a robot assistant and everyone accepts and feeds the way of life that comes as a result of their existence. like a government, the robots wage a war against the undesirables in the community, saying it's for the larger good. of course there's more to the film than i've mentioned here. suffice it to say that it's a fairly entertaining and thoughtful picture.
it takes place in 2035 in chicago, and at one point shows a shot of the two corn on the cob looking parking structures by the river. it does not, however, show the trump tower which is currently under construction. so this could be considered a mistake. another millersmovies exclusive. B.

Little Miss Sunshine - a wonderful film. it has elements of malcolm in the middle, p.t. anderson and national lampoon's vacation. in fact it is even linked to two of those - bryan cranston appears here as stan grossman, but he plays the father in malcolm in the middle; and mary lynn rajskub is in both punch-drunk love and this film.
from start to finish the film engrosses the audience. in fact, if you're not engrossed by the time the title appears i'd be damned surprised. it opens with a quick introduction to the various characters and their various obsessions, vices, or problems. as the film unfolds it becomes clear that the emotional center of the film is the young girl whose quest to become little miss sunshine dominates the plot of the film. everyone is brought together by her enthusiasm for life which contrasts the other characters, who are in varying states of death. kinnear is obsessed with his 9 steps of life program and winning, arkin is enraged and addicted to drugs, dano is anti-social and unable to appreciate his family on any level, collette is struggling with keeping the family together and her smoking habit, and carell is in a deep depression and comes into the story shortly after a botched suicide attempt. put this way the film doesn't seem like a comedy, but it most certainly is. it's a bold comedy that isn't afraid to be different, audacious, and profound in the process.
the symbol of the vw bus, which requires a push to get it going, works perfectly within the film. not only is it the perfect choice of vehicle for their family, but it also represents their reliance upon each other to get where they need to go. it also works as one of the many effective comedic elements of the film. the image of them coming back to pick up olive is unforgettable.
the final act sees the family's goal complete - they have arrived at the little miss sunshine pageant. but it isn't quite what is expected for any of them and each grows during their time there. kinnear realizes that some things in life aren't worth winning, dano redefines his dream and embraces his position in the process, and carell finds a new place as a mentor. the family, too, coalesces. they realize that they're different and, for better or worse, a unit. this is seen most clearly in the dance scene. breslin dances to "super freak," much to the astonishment of the pageant organizers. this is perhaps the best scene of the film because it is humorous, poignant (because we see the family truly coming together) and profound (because of the commentary). the commentary can be simply put as anti-beauty pageant, but that doesn't really do it justice. breslin's dance, done to rick james' "super freak," is overtly sexual and shocks the pageant personnel. what it really does though, is redefine an already atrocious parade of overt sexuality in young girls. breslin's dance is certainly sexual in one context, but because we know her character and see her ignorance of sexuality, it is seen as precious and cute. however, much is revealed by the fact that the pageant organizers don't see it this way. essentially, breslin's dance and music choice turn the overt sexuality of the pageant on its head. it's a brilliant commentary on one of the more sickening aspects of our culture. the jonbenet ramsey type pageant participants function as the perfect foil for breslin and her family. in the end, they exit the parking lot through the entrance and drive off into the horizon. A-.
Little Miss Sunshine - watched it this time with the directors' commentary. learned that the film took six years of writing and looking for funding to get the film made. i guess it figures - films of this type and caliber don't generally get made these days in hollywood. forgot to mention a couple nice touches in my last review. i love olive's red cowboy boots, for example. they just give her character a unique quality that works so well to differentiate her from the rest of the girls in the pageant. i also liked the various glasses and cups they had at the dinner table; very realistic. a family like this probably wouldn't have a bunch of matching silverware and glasses. instead they would have a mix of plastic cups, glasses from mcdonalds and regular tumblers. details help make a picture great. A.

In Her Shoes - the library from which i borrow dvds has a limited selection (500?). i'm starting to get to the point where i've either seen all of the movies, or am not interested in the titles they offer. so, it's getting to the point where i take chances with films like this...
i once took a fiction writing class and for one assignment we were made to write a story of 7 pages and then workshop it in the next class. one of the girls wrote a story that went, quite literally, like this: "mary and sue were friends. they were best friends and couldn't be separated. one day mary was raped and felt really sad about it. sue decided to help her. the two women went out one night and killed the man who raped her. afterwards they were fugitives and they hit the road." it was a story that was beyond awful, yet it has a value. that story made me appreciate all the other stories in the world which are so much more well-written and crafted. without stories like that it would be more difficult to appreciate good writing when you see it.
chick flicks, like guy movies, are typically not very well-written. both genres are usually mired in clichés and bad acting because the filmmakers know they've got an easy target. every once in a while, though, someone will write a good film that may or may not shatter the mold, but at least shows what good writing is about. that girl's story in my fiction class and most chick flicks are useful, at least in part, because they illuminate quality films like this one. in her shoes is a chick flick in that it would probably be advertised in cosmo, rather than maxim, and has women as its main characters, but it's more than a chick flick because it tells a very human story as well. at its center it is about relationships and growth and the weaknesses and strengths each person has. so, in this way it's quite a bit more than a mere chick flick.
if told by the girl in my fiction class, the story would not impress. if pitched to a producer on an elevator ride the story would not stand out. so, it's in the telling. with this film curtis hanson (l.a. confidential, 8 mile) gives every director of the genre a lesson on how to tell a compelling story. collette and maclaine are both great and diaz certainly holds her own. the writing is very smart, impactful and real. writing and acting of this caliber elevate even the most simple plots. i could sympathize with every character at least a little bit, and that's an accomplishment. that's not to say i wanted to be every character's friend, but i understood their perspective and had some degree of sympathy for their situation. the title metaphor works well, too. B+.

March Of The Penguins - when watching this film i compared it to others like it, this is an important point. i'll admit up front that i'm more cynical and critical than most and that certainly didn't help in viewing this film. my major problems with the film, documentary, whatever you want to call it, are: the artifice, the manipulation, and the anthropomorphic narrative.
right away you are given the impression that the filmmakers are out to tug on your heart strings by any means necessary. what do i mean by this? well, 1) they want to move you to tears and 2) they're willing to fudge the facts and make something out of nothing, or more accurately, a lot of something out of something else. what leads me to believe this and how did they do it? it is evident in several scenes that sound effects were added after the filming. whether it's because of wind or the fact that cameras are too far away, we know that a lot of the sounds had to be dubbed in while in the editing room. in some instances it appeared as though sounds that didn't actually go with the action were being added in, to heighten effect. e.g., a penguin falls on another penguin and the second penguin gives a little squeak. it's funny, but the camera was too far away and i didn't see the beak open, so i suspect the squeak was added for effect. the effect is two-fold - it makes us laugh and it makes us think penguins are like us. this anthropomorphic idea is echoed throughout the film visually, auditorily and in freeman's narrative. e.g. "they're going on this journey for love" or "they're not that much different from us." this is all without even mentioning the fact that is put in plain view at the end of the film while the credits are rolling: two credits come up of significance - a foley artist (studio sound creator) and a digital effects person. neither would be necessary in a similar documentary put out by national geographic. and this is gets to my major complaint: the story of life, and of these animals in particular, is very very fascinating yet the filmmakers felt the need to meddle and manipulate anyway. it's not all that much more interesting than the story of the great blue herons, or monarch butterflies, or salmon, or many other animals that go on long journeys in their lives. but since the penguins waddle along like old humans we find it cute and go to the theater in droves.
this is at least the third french documentary on wildlife which has reached the rest of the world. the first (microcosmos) was by far the best, but barely had a narrative and it was about insects and small bugs, so it didn't do very well. the second was winged migration which employed an extremely questionable methodology (essentially caging the birds each night so they could follow them the next day for filming) and was moderately successful. the first two, by the way, were done by the same guy (perrin). the third is march of the penguins which has done very well and is much more aggressive in its narrative and anthropomorphic viewpoint.
a lot of all this comes down to personal preference, as it often does. i much prefer a national geographic style documentary which shies away from crafty editing to mold a storyline that isn't really there. the national geographic style is much more of a fly on the wall style - they give the facts, follow the animals, explain certain behaviors and leave out the commentary. microcosmos does this extremely well. i don't think it's possible to watch this film as anything other than a documentary, and, as a documentary, i think it's intellectually dishonest and manipulative. all that said, it's not the worst thing in the world - they didn't outright lie and even if they did, it's only a documentary about interesting birds; it's not like lying about weapons of mass destruction or something. again, ultimately the story is quite an interesting one. life has hundreds of stories like this, though, so let's not think that this one stands alone. and, let's not think that this documentary tells the story the way it actually is. C- as is, B- if muted.

Road Warrior - the best australian film i've ever seen, and one of the best post-apocalyptic films of all-time. it's so spare and economical, yet it sticks in the mind like a larger film might. plus, there are few films that make me want to drive real fast more than this one. the modified falcon that gibson drives is just such a cool car - it kicks ass on the road, but only because that's the most practical possible configuration. i want that car. beyond the car, the film is solidly built from top to bottom. none of the performances are stilted, the production design is nearly flawless, the direction is spare and taut, the music is large and looming....the writers said they discovered joseph campbell's "hero with 1,000 faces" after making mad max and wanted to explore campbell's idea of the universal hero further by making road warrior. i've never read the book, but gibson is a martyr character of sorts who, in the end, sacrifices his own self-interest for that of the group. beyond that, i'm not sure how he fits the campbell mold.
if i had to isolate one strength of the film i'd probably highlight the production design. the setting is perfect for the post-apocalyptic world and the sets and set pieces bolster the sparse, dirty, and rugged themes of the film. abandoned and destroyed vehicles, the boomerang throwing kid and his custom mitt, the "northern tribe's" fort, the raiders' weapons and outfits, etc. all round out the idea that the world is only a shadow of what it once was. this is a film that sticks in your mind because of how unique and visionary it is. A+.

Fast Food Nation - one thing you can say about linklater is that he's prolific, if not necessarily consistent in quality. i like him because he, like soderbergh, alternates his films - one hollywood, one indie. so for every "slacker" or "a scanner darkly" he has a "school of rock" or "bad news bears." this one is more towards the latter than the former, but is more in between than most of his films - it's got a sizable and notable cast (including avril lavigne), it's playing in theater chains, and it debuted in more theaters than "a scanner darkly" was in at its peak, though it's no spider-man 2 (which debuted on more than 4,000 screens). here he makes a fictional representation of schlosser's insightful book by the same name.
what the book had going for it was the following: well-written, it was new, it was credible. the movie lacked those things in many ways. frankly, it came off as a made-for-tv movie in many ways. the entire thrust of the film just works better in documentary or written form. it's not just that the film didn't add anything to the book or the discussion as a whole, it's that it actually detracted from the book. i sorta came away from the film thinking the way bruce willis' character does in the film; and i know that's not what was intended. i acknowledge that it's somewhat of a character flaw within me that i move the opposite direction of prevailing opinion, at times just for the sake of being contrary, but i feel that, in this case, the film incited me towards that. it came off as some what pedantic and presented such a specific and anecdotal set of story lines, that i was really turned off by what was being preached, even though i agree with a lot of it. either you have to be ignorant of what is presented in the film or you have to be really sympathetic to its cause. i was/am neither so it didn't do it for me. if this is a subject that interests you i would highly recommend reading the book instead. it's a good book with plenty of good information. it talks about mcdonald's, monsanto, working conditions, slaughtering conditions, etc. it does everything the film does, only better, with more depth, with greater credibility and more enjoyably. oddly, schlosser co-wrote the film. C-.

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town - another great frank capra film. this one was remade with sandler playing deeds instead of gary cooper. when i first saw that version i hadn't seen the original yet so i had nothing to compare it to. i found the remake enjoyable and funny enough. well, i finally got around to seeing the original and its amazing to see how watered down the remake is in comparison. this film starts as fairly light comedy, but grows into something resembling "gabriel over the white house" meets "grapes of wrath." i said before that capra creates films that "are so easily made fun of, yet so undeniably inspiring that it almost seems a paradox." what i essentially meant is that he creates situations that, if taken out of context, could seem cheesy or saccharine. but, when within the context of the film, are also quite inspirational at the same time. as it turns out, he summarizes this idea better than i ever could via jean arthur who, in this film, says "do you know what he (mr. deeds) told me tonight? he said me when he gets married he wants to carry his bride over the threshold in his arms." the roommate responds "the guy's balmy." and jean arthur replies "is he? yeah, i tried to laugh, but i couldn't - it got stuck in my throat." this is the essence of capra's work - sometimes your outward skeptic tries to laugh at the themes or situations he presents, but you can't because his work is so effectively poignant that the laugh gets stuck in your throat and (often) turns to tears. he should be an inspiration to any director who wants to tell a story without frills. his compositions are fairly simple, but effective. his editing and camera placement aren't overly technical or artistic. the music in mr. deeds goes to town is minimal. in other words, he tells these great stories through acting and writing. as strange as it may seem, these two elements are overlooked in today's hollywood. actors are chosen as much by their ability to draw as their ability to fill the role. writing is mechanical, simplistic and uninspired.
jean arthur (one of my favorite actresses) is fantastic in a role that has been done a million times (usually by men and usually in "teen" flicks like 10 things i hate about you or she's all that). she plays the reporter who dupes mr. deeds into thinking she's just a girl who wants to get to know him, when in fact she is in it for the story. gary cooper plays the eponymous character and does a better job here than in "pride of the yankees." his character is variable, complex and inspiring. he's a simple, but tough and intelligent man. who fills this role now? who plays the inspiring everyman like cooper or stewart did? do these roles still exist? tim robbins in shawshank redemption is the first one that comes to mind. lionel stander also does a good job as mr. deeds' loyal right hand man. B+.

Fountain - i'm starting to become a fan of hugh jackman's, but i can't say the same for rachel weisz. aronofsky (pi, requiem for a dream) makes films that are, above all, about obsession - pi is about one man's obsession with Truth (that's with a capital "t"), requiem for a dream is about obsession as manifested in the addiction to drugs, and this is about a man's obsession with (take your pick) his lover or avoiding death. i think it's more the latter than the former. the thesis seems to be that one can't enjoy life if he is always trying to avoid death. this isn't necessarily a mutually exclusive philosophy to the one espoused in ghost dog. in that film the protagonist meditates on the inevitability of death every day, this enhances his life, where as jackman's obsession with escaping death in the fountain, lessens his life.
there are three parallel storylines and you can choose to view them in a number of ways. in each storyline there is jackman who is on a quest to find the answer to immortality, for the sake of saving his terminal wife. that's a simplification, but it'll have to suffice. at any rate, one is set in 16th century spain, one in the future, and one in the present. in the present day version jackman's wife (weisz) writes a book called the fountain, a book she wants him to finish for her. incidentally, the 12th chapter is the final chapter which he must write - a possible reference to the 12th step; again, addiction. when he reads the book we pick up the 16th century spain storyline and when he's asleep we see the future storyline. one could view each as reality across time, or one could view the present day storyline as real and the others as symbolic representations of the real storyline. that's how i viewed it. there's a great deal of depth to the storyline, and indeed the entire film, so watching it more than once is necessary.
visually aronofsky creates another wondrous opus. he always has at least a couple really nice, original shots or setups. musically clint mansell always brings his best stuff when he works with aronofsky. he's worked on other films, but nothing is ever as good as pi or requiem for a dream (which also included the kronos quartet). don't go into the film if you're in the mood for a light film. go with someone who enjoys talking about films afterwards and plan a long drive or walk afterwards so you can talk about the questions it raises and the philosophy behind the film. i don't foresee this film making a whole lot of money and that's probably a good thing. i wouldn't want to see aronofsky get spoiled or tainted by the hollywood process. he's good enough to garner big talent, but not successful enough to get the interest (and meddling that goes with it) of big name producers. B.
Casino Royale - new film, new bond actor. here craig seemed to lack the smooth sophistication and class that the better bond actors have had. peter lamont (octopussy, golden eye, for your eyes only, aliens, etc.) returns to work on the production design. the first chase scene features the parkour stunt style. it's used quite well in district 13 and ong-bak, if you're interested in seeing more of that. the audience seemed to like it and so did i. this bond film lacked the hot chicks that many of the others have in spades. the title sequence lacks the silhouettes of women and features chris cornell doing the main title. i think this is also the first bond flick done since sony bought the rights to mgm. it was a bit odd to see the mgm lion followed by the columbia lady, but i guarantee it goes unnoticed by about 90% of the population, especially people who (like me) aren't old enough to really remember the days of studio supremacy. along with sony comes viao computers, sony/erickson cellphones and sony digital cameras placed throughout the picture. strictly business i guess.
all that said, this is one of the better modern (dalton and beyond) bond films that i've seen. i liked brosnan and could do without dalton. the writing here is good and balanced, though craig lacks something in its execution. i found him to be too much of a blunt instrument (as m put it), but perhaps that's the point. maybe his character doesn't get sophisticated until later in the series. as i've never read the fleming books, i wouldn't know. anyway, if you like the bond franchise then i don't think you'll be disappointed too much here. it does lack in the skin department (although we do see craig naked), but it has a gadget or two, a couple nice cars (including a nod to the old aston martin), and some good action. p.s. the guy who plays the neighbor in broken flowers is in this as well. B.
Stranger Than Fiction - it's like a cross between delirious, or a film written by charlie kaufman, and punch-drunk love. punch-drunk love is written and directed by p.t. anderson, who is probably my favorite of contemporary directors, so stranger than fiction doesn't stack up to it, but it's a solid picture nonetheless. i suppose the two biggest stories of the film are will ferrell's performance - which is reserved and relatively complex - and the chemistry between him and gyllenhaal. i've thought much of her and her brother since donnie darko, and here she shows a sexiness and offbeat appeal that we don't see in many mainstream pictures or leading ladies. she's funny, intelligent, dynamic and different and it makes for a more fun picture with a fresh love story.
regarding ferrell, i began to tire of his routine after seeing talladega nights. in my review for that film i commented on the fact that he does his typical running around in his underwear bit and not much more. in stranger than fiction, though, he still has his unique comic energy, but it is restrained by the traits of his character and the tone of the film. this is one of the reasons i compare this film with punch-drunk love. in that film adam sandler steps outside of his usual routine and enters a different kind of character to great effect.
dustin hoffman seems to have found a new character for himself. in i heart huckabees, meet the fockers and stranger than fiction he plays a laid back, new agey, hip older guy. he continues to add facets to his amazing career.
marc forster, who directed this, finding neverland and monster's ball, turns in his best film to date. actually, i haven't seen finding neverland, but i've heard it's depressing and i'm going to project that forster doesn't do depressing very well. monster's ball was a yawn without soul, so i'll just say that stranger than fiction is his best film. visually it's interesting and he does a good job handling the tragic and comic elements. though i do have a bit of a problem with the ending. B+.
Sixth Day - it's like a cross between the island and total recall only not as good as either. the father from "everybody hates chris" plays a tough guy in this. that's two of his movies in one week. for being a second-rate sci-fi flick with an old arnie, it actually does a good job of raising fundamental questions. back in the day when i was obsessed with playing doom 2 on the computer i would get to certain levels which were really difficult and, rather than start the level over after each death, i would save the game compulsively in case i died. that way i'd only have to redo the part that i screwed up on. when you do this enough it sorta cheapens the game because it's like cheating. you can go forward recklessly without having to worry about any mistakes you make, which is nice, but eventually you realize that it takes away a lot of the challenge.
this same idea can be applied to themes addressed in the sixth day. in it scientists have, in spite of international laws, perfected human cloning and have come up with a technique that allows them to save a person's memories as well. in other words, for $1.2 million you can have yourself cloned and have your last saved memories applied to said clone. the film begins by showing a football game wherein the star quarterback breaks his neck and dies. the team has him cloned and he's ready to play again next week. problem solved. arnold plays a pilot who is, through a series of complicated events, mistakenly cloned and must be killed before people realize that an illegal clone has taken place. he gets wise real quick and evades his would-be assassins and goes on a quest to figure out who is behind the whole affair. turns out that robert duvall and some other guy are responsible for a large illicit cloning operation. the head of operations justifies it as such: under international law most human organs can be cloned, but human brains cannot. how, he asks, can you justify to the father of a dying child the fact that the boy next to his, who has liver cancer, can be cured, but his son, who has brain cancer, cannot. to make things more devious the head of operations has included an insurance policy in each illegal clone he has performed - a degenerative disease gene has been implanted in each so that they have only 1-5 years of life post-clone. this keeps them loyal in case they change their minds. there's more to the plot, but you get the idea. it's pretty twisted shit and it's pretty far-fetched, but so was slowing the speed of light.
it's longer than i expected, but the time went by quickly so i guess that's a good sign. production values are low and the acting isn't anything special, but i liked the ideas presented. interesting side note: spottiswoode (the director) directed what was the most expensive bond film at the time. i'm on a little bond film watching spree, but watching this film was purely coincidental. B-.

Fun With Dick And Jane - i saw a hermaphroditic porno once called "fun with jane's dick" that was better than this. or was it the gay porn "fun with dick?" not sure. all kidding aside the worst thing about this film is the way it was marketed. the trailers made it look really bad and played down the elements of commentary that the film clearly has. there was one trailer that they showed far less frequently which hinted at the "getting back at the man" aspect and i'm now sure why they buried that one. perhaps i was in texas at the time and they didn't think the anti-enron angle would play as well there...i really couldn't tell you.
at the end of the film, before they roll the credits, they thank, by name, the heads of tyco, enron, arthur andersen, worldcom, etc. great stuff. there's also a part where alec baldwin, who plays the ceo from georgia who gets away with the bogus accounting practices, is being interviewed about the employees who are suffering as a result of the fictional enron which has just collapsed. he's out hunting while the news crew is following him and someone asks what his thoughts on the situation are. he says "well, i lost a lot with that company too. my heart really goes out to all the people who are having trouble getting back on their feet and who have lost their pensions. (pause) now watch this shot." and he shoots at some animal in the distance. it's funny, but it's made more funny by the fact that he's taking it straight from an actual event when our tactless leader (bush) was playing golf and talking about the war.
i never saw the original so i can't compare the two, however i say that this one was better than expected. besides the business and political commentary there was some social material as well. one of the motifs of the film was the roll of mexican immigrants in the lives of dick and jane. there wasn't a cohesive commentary, but the issue wasn't avoided either, which says something. i guess this gets at one of the strong points of the film - its boldness. it wasn't a really daring film, don't get me wrong, but i was expecting something completely prosaic and i got a film that wasn't afraid to poke fun at the president, show the difficulties of immigrant life, and call out business executives a bit.
the premise is fairly stupid, but this film shows what decent writing can do with a sitcom-ish plot setup. judd apatow (freaks and geeks, 40 year old virgin, etc.) is one of the writers and i'm sure he had something to do with this film not being a total flop. C+.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington - as profound, moving and relevant today as when it was made in 1939. if the film were made today (and it wouldn't be, but perhaps that's part of our problem), it wouldn't be more than 20 minutes long. about 20 minutes through the governor is given the duty of assigning a new senator. the political bosses want him to pick a party stooge so he presents the stooge as his nominee, but it is met with vigorous outcry from the people and press. this is where the modern-day version would end. a vigorous outcry would never happen - the press is inept and impotent and the polity is ignorant, apathetic and disengaged. end of movie. but in 1939 the people felt they had reason to be politically aware and engaged so, in the movie, they reject the stooge and the governor is forced to make a different choice. enter james stewart, boy scout leader, local hero, all-around good guy.
james stewart is unmatched in cinema - i have him near, if not at, the top of my list of greatest actors of all-time. his range is great and his work with three major directors created at least three different james stewart personas. with capra he crafted the good guy/everyman persona. with hitchcock he crafted a more complex persona - in vertigo he's a tortured soul, in rope he's a bright professor who plays devil's advocate, but he's still the moral compass. with anthony mann he's the supremely capable, but solipsistic and darkened westerner. with each director he added a layer to his work. here is no exception. in this film he sometimes acts without subtlety, yet that lack of subtlety lends a vulnerability to his character. it's perfectly plausible that my love for his work has blinded me, but i really think that the overacting he does here is exactly what the film (and role) demand.
much of that is because of capra's direction. i'm by no means a capra expert, but i feel like his style is one of being overdramatic while still being poignant. it's not pure luck that he was able to make some of the most inspiring films of the time - mr. smith goes to washington and it's a wonderful life being the two biggest. both those films are so easily made fun of, yet so undeniably inspiring that it almost seems a paradox. exploring this ability would take studying his films more closely and i don't have access to them right now so that'll have to wait. at any rate, capra's direction style is one of over-dramatization in spurts. the love that develops between jean arthur and james stewart is treated with care and subtlety, but the reaction james stewart has to claude rains' daughter isn't subtle at all. stewart's realization that his filibuster is "another lost cause" isn't overblown, but his introduction to washington d.c. is. the most important points of the film are dealt with just right, while some of the more whimsical or silly things are treated as entertainment. it's as if capra comes up with an amazingly simple and inspired story, tells it in a fun and entertaining way, but slows it down just enough at the key moments to allow you to really feel the weight of what you're experiencing. and, like george costanza, he quits while he's ahead. there's no fluffy conclusion, just the cast listing and a final piece from tiomkin. A.

Borat - in 1835 de tocqueville published the first volume of "democracy in america," 171 years later sacha baron cohen released a film called "borat." the first is widely acknowledged as a seminal piece of literature - a work that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a nascent democracy in a newly formed country. the second is number one in the box office, but has yet to receive the same canonization as the first work. until now. cohen's film/documentary offers more insight into the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of this still young country as any film or documentary released in recent years. what's more, it does it so well and without notice that it passes as mere comedy. he's able to do this because he's an outsider and perceived as harmless, not in spite of these facts. his child-like demeanor allows us to see things that we might not otherwise see. filmmakers know this instinctively - when there is background or explanation that needs fleshing out just include a stupid character or child who asks the questions the audience would like to ask. borat's character operates in a similar fashion, only, rather than probing as a documentarian might, he exposes, as a hidden camera might.
one semi-serious problem i had with the picture is it's edited. the seamless transition from film to documentary made me wonder how much of the documentary was "set up" or created, rather than captured. it would have been easy to avoid this problem through the use of few cameras and less editing. in the scene where borat is at the rodeo, for example, i don't recall seeing people actually booing him, yet the audio clearly indicates this. we do see people look at him oddly, but i didn't see people actively booing him. was this overdubbed? was it looped to make it seem more substantial than it actually was? another example is when borat receives a telegram telling him some sad news. this portion seems to fall into the documentary genre because the camera is inside his room and over his shoulder. it appears as though the hotel employee is not in on the joke. until, that is, there is a reaction shot of borat from outside, in the hallway, over the employee's shoulder. was this set up later? i'd have to look at it again more closely. part of me wonders how much of borat is really william hurt in "broadcast news." watch the movie and you'll get the reference. you should have seen it by now anyway.
these concerns aside, the film is hilarious and quite telling. B+.

Viva La Muerte - bizarre surrealist film about a boy whose father was taken from him for being a revolutionary. eventually he discovers that his mother turned in his father and he grapples with this realization and loss. things happen, but the plot isn't all that memorable. the memorable thing about the film is the way in which arrabal uses film to portray the boy's feelings and thoughts, as well as flesh out the themes of the picture. lots of tough visuals and oblique references, etc. mark the visual style, but this is the norm in the genre. probably the most i can say about the film is that it's watchable; compelling even. i put it on with the intention of just seeing what it was like, but i ended up watching the entire film. not only did it make me want to see it, it did this despite being a surrealist picture. i'm not a huge fan of surrealism, as much of it is pedantic and too tough to penetrate. here, though, that wasn't the case. worth checking out for those who are interested in film, not just movies. B-.

Little Children - well done and oddly pitched film that takes a certain kind to appreciate. it's not as clearly off-the-wall as solondz's work, but it approaches it at times. that said, the film trumps solondz in that it has a poignancy that his films generally lack. solondz can make you uncomfortable and push your boundaries and make you laugh, but this film does that (to a lesser degree) AND it makes you feel something. stylistically, it's a cross between solondz and p.t. anderson.
the cast is uniformly solid. jennifer connelly is up there with lauren bacall in terms of onscreen beauty. kate winslet plays a tough character well. and patrick wilson provides some contrast to his character in hard candy. i can't think of a stilted performance or miscast role in the entire film.
i'm not sure what the purpose or thesis of the film was. perhaps it, like seinfeld, was hoping to show how simple even adults can be. perhaps it was an attempt to humanize modern archetypes. maybe it just wanted to tell a poignant suburban tale. maybe it's a bit of all of those. no matter what, it's an entertaining and engaging film that will make you think, laugh and feel for a couple hours. B+.

Star Wars (original version) - what can you say about a film that has already had everything said about it? what can you say about a film that made carrie fisher hot, harrison ford huge, and mark hamill a hero? a lot, but not much that's going to be insightful or novel. if not for pulp fiction, reservoir dogs might still be a relatively unknown cult film by an unknown director. though i have to say that i saw reservoir dogs in the theater, so i would be among the few who would have appreciated it without pulp fiction, but i digress...i think that john williams' score is to star wars as pulp fiction is to reservoir dogs - without the sweeping, moving and epic score, star wars might not have been the huge blockbuster that it was. this isn't a knock against the film, rather it's a praise of the music. the main theme and the finale are both among the finest pieces of music ever composed for film.
it's got a great balance of comedy, action and philosophy. i would be remiss if i didn't mention kurosawa's "hidden fortress" which served as an inspiration for star wars. lucas "borrowed" several elements from it: telling the story from the point of view of two lowly characters, the traitor character (which comes later in the series), and the sword fighting. he also borrows from flash gordon (the title sequence) and the writings of joseph campbell.
the empire strikes back is still probably my favorite, but this one is fucking great. A+.

Departed - bottom line on top: watch it. this review is likely to have more spoilers than usual. "consider yourselves... WARNED!" - public enemy track one off "it takes a nation of millions to hold us back"
it's said that when a door closes a window opens, such is the idea of the film. the film's title refers to those who have "passed;" the departed. with each death a new window opens, alliances shift, characters are revealed, people ascend and fall with equal ease. the film begins with nicholson, a gangster, collecting a payment from a local business. we are introduced to matt damon as a young boy, ogling nicholson while he strong arms the business man and hits on the under age girl who runs the register. damon, we gather, lacks a father and lives with his grandmother. this first introduction of a departed person is one in a line of many whose absence weighs heavily on those the story follows. nicholson brings up damon goodfellas/ray liotta style and thus a gangster is born. but damon doesn't go the way of liotta in goodfellas, rather he's a mole in the state police. meanwhile, dicaprio is his foil. a boy with a dirty family, but he wants to make good. the state police, though, know his character smacks more of a criminal than that of a white bread cop. thus they (sheen and wahlberg) use him as their version of donnie brasco.
the characters are as compelling as anything else within the film. the story, too, is top notch. the direction, though perfectly capable and at times quite good, isn't as good here as it was in the aviator. this, and the fact that the departed is more a boston film, rather than a new york, film, are the reasons that an academy award with this film would be somewhat bittersweet. scorsese's use of music here isn't as good as it was in the casino, but it's worthy of mention and better than most.
dicaprio and farmiga were the most compelling characters for me, but it's really subjective. every major character has a duality and depth that make them compelling in some way. dicaprio has, for me, officially cleansed himself of the pretty boy persona he had following the titanic. the guy's a serious actor who has found a good mentor in scorsese. i'm glad he has chosen to go the route of gilbert grape and this boy's life, rather than becoming a pretty boy. he's been putting together quite an impressive collection of performances lately.
the film's ending is appropriate yet surprising and moving. these are the best kind - the ones that belong, but are still somehow unexpected. B+. it'll be an A- the next time i see it.
"i've always thought you should treat the feds like you treat mushrooms: keep them in the dark and feed them plenty of shit."

Jackass: Number Two - the first few stunts are either obvious set pieces or less organically derived than most of their previous works. i was a bit put off by this because i thought maybe they were doing it more for the money, than for the love of stupidity. as the film progressed they get back to their roots. organically derived or set up, i guess it doesn't really matter. if you like them then you like them. i don't know why most people like them. i think there's a universal pleasure derived from seeing other people get hurt. monkeys seem to like it, and i think the popularity of jackass is in much the same vein. i did find, though, that much of my pleasure derived from what i see as an uncommon justice. very infrequently in this world do people get exactly what they deserve. in jackass, though, all these idiots get what they deserve. it's not that i hate them or anything, but i do look down on them because they're stupid. with every stunt i was pleased to see that each of them got the pain that they deserve for doing what they do. there is a small measure of justice in the world after all.
this installment of the jackass series is more rude, crude, gross and over the top than the first. it's a reflection of our times; we're an internet society now, and as a result every sickening facet of humanity is known to anyone who cruises around the internet for a (in)decent amount of time. it takes more to shock us these days and this film is as much a testament to that as anything else i can think of right now. B+.

Snow Walker - the best canadian film i've seen in a while. takes place near the arctic circle and revolves around barry pepper, who plays a hot shot ex-war pilot who runs contraband for his boss. while making a drop he comes across some inuit who have a woman who is sick, apparently with TB. while transporting her back to civilization (for a fee of course) the plane breaks down and they crash land in the middle of nowhere. the remaining story is essentially a survival tale of two people who couldn't be more different. it actually begins at the end, with a single figure carrying something off in the distance. seemingly giving the ending away like this is like saying: "we (the filmmakers) are aware that you (the audience) know this is a film and, as such, there's going to be a happy ending. this film isn't about the ending, so instead of focusing on whether they get out alive or not, focus on the journey each takes." this approach works quite well.
i like war films, prison films and survival films because they strip humanity down to its most bare essentials. this film is no exception. the acting is surprisingly good and the interaction is naturalististic. it's not a film you're likely to see or hear about, but it's one that's worth watching. B.

Wild Bunch - a brilliant film. some brilliant films are striking while you are watching them (graduate) and others take a while to settle in (taste of cherry). this film has a bit of both. the wonderfully edited action sequences (the famous opening, the bridge scene and the finale) demand your attention and wonderment. while everything in between - the pensive moments between the men, the shots of mexican villages and villagers, etc. pay dividends after the film is over.
these slow moments, which add to the long runtime, may not seem necessary while you're watching the film, but when you look back on the film, and are able to separate yourself from the minutes of nothing happening, you realize how important those seemingly meaningless scenes actually are. the wild bunch is like the good, the bad and the ugly in this way (and others). when i watch each film i sometimes find myself bored and the first reaction to that is that the film isn't engaging or is less of a film as a result. really, though, these ebbs between the action make said action more impactful. additionally, these slower portions are what keeps the film together. there's a lot of meat between the action and it takes a while, several viewings, to digest it all. for example, it's called the wild bunch, but there's a lot of the film that isn't about the wild bunch. a lot of it is about the landscape. whether that's the western milieu, or the mexican civil war, or peasant life...there's a lot to chew on.
one reason i think the film resonates with so many people is, for all its wild shoot-outs, it is, like ride the high country, a pretty realistic film. it's got a gritty look, a cinema verite look at the townspeople and landscape, it's not shy in portraying these ugly men and all their imperfections (physical [think of the sauna scene] and moral), etc. of course peckinpah contrasts these gritty realities with moral ideals (stand by your man) and some kick ass action scenes. the opening sequence is fucking brilliant from top to bottom. very reminiscent of the goosebumps that i get from watching the final half hour of the good, the bad and the ugly. which brings me to the music....fielding does a superb job throughout. it's not morricone, but it's still spot on, inspiring and complementary. A+.
Killer Elite - when i first heard the particulars of this film - peckinpah, caan, duvall, hopkins, kung-fu, the title - i was pretty excited. that faded quickly. killer elite isn't, everything that wild bunch is. absolutely awful from the opening sequence to the finale. before the film, peckinpah a biographer commented that the first 20 minutes of the film are brilliant, but that things sort of fell apart after that. he was half right. the rest of the panel gave varying excuses for what, even they, must have known to be inferior - there were six different stunt coordinators working on the martial arts finale, the producer had too much influence, the producer's wife played the female lead (a rather small part), etc. the truth is that the screenplay sucks and the execution didn't even come close to saving it. fielding, who does the brilliant score for wild bunch, turns in his best rendition of a 70s made-for-tv action film. in other words, it's awful. robert duvall mails it in with his usual routine. james caan, coming off the inspiring rollerball, turns in a lackluster performance. bo hopkins, as nice and funny as he is in person, is the definition of amateur in this film.
in killer elite we see peckinpah relying on tried techniques. a cross-editing technique (e.g. cross-cutting between someone falling in slow motion and something else happening at the same time) which is so well-executed in wild bunch, falls flat here. storytelling and character development are non-existent, two-dimensional or cliché. one producer, silliphant, was behind the bet that produced manos: hands of fate. perhaps we can blame the entire thing on him. oh god i don't even want to write about this movie anymore. F.

Little Miss Sunshine - nice, unique comedy from a first time writer and a directing team that has basically just worked on music videos. in little miss sunshine they craft an offbeat, but not entirely unbelievable, family unit that goes on a road trip that rivals national lampoon's vacation; dead grandparent included. there's a great dynamic between all the family members partly because the film isn't a star vehicle. sure carrell is the hottest one in the group, but arkin (catch-22) shows he isn't washed up yet, kinnear proves again that he's an underrated comedic talent, and collette (japanese story, sixth sense) adds to her round resume. paul dano is a relatively unknown actor whose big breakout was the flawed, but good, indie film L.I.E. abigail breslin plays prospective little miss sunshine herself and does quite a textured and impressive job, especially given her age. also look for bryan cranston in a slimy role as stan grossman, a character name also used in fargo; there's a millersmovies exclusive for you. yeah right.
overall it's quite a unique and funny film. it's not purely comedy and the few dramatic moments are made more poignant because the film is so effective in drawing characters and keeping the comic relief at the forefront. watch this and then rushmore. B+.

Lady In The Water - there are a lot of reasons to dislike this film, but i didn't really bother myself with any of those because i was too busy laughing and going along for the ride. sure the plot is implausible and everyone seems to buy into the whole story far too easily, but that's part of the point. shyamalan is a clever guy and he shows it here as well as he ever has. he's completely aware of what he's doing, even going so far as including a character who is an overly aware film critic. shyamalan knows what the cliches, tricks and formulas are and he plays with them. he is able to overcome the "oh whatever" factor through liberal use of comic relief. and that's actually what the film rests on more than anything else. the film is more funny than it is scary. further, the ensemble does a very good job of keeping things fresh, funny and interesting.
christopher doyle, surprisingly, is the cinematographer here. he specializes in vibrant colors and asian cinema, but shows neither of those characteristics here. he's most well known for his work with wong kar-wai and his amazing work on the jet li flick "hero." he's also worked on the psycho remake, rabbit-proof fence and the quiet american. here, though, he moves the camera well and works well with muted colors. he's clearly one of the better talents working today.
this isn't a brilliant work, but it isn't worthy of the panning it's likely to get either. it's a good, interesting film from a guy who clearly knows about film. B.

Miami Vice - a film like this must be measured on a different scale than something as insignificant as "my super ex-girlfriend," and that's the downside of being as good as michael mann. in collateral mann employs the use of one song by audioslave, in miami vice he employs audioslave on at least three different occasions. perhaps audioslave is a good metaphor for mann's last three films. audioslave rose from the ashes of rock gods rage against the machine and soundgarden. while audioslave is good in theory, they just don't work together. mann's last three films, despite some flourishes in acting and visual style, have just not worked - especially when compared to the previous two. it's not that miami vice, ali or collateral have been BAD, but they're not that great either. collateral was an interesting story with good acting and a new visual style, clearly the winner of mann's last three. miami vice has some flourishes of the same kind, but is dragged down by some of the action cliches. cliches can be overcome by great directing, but they aren't in this instance. miami vice could have been less serious and been an homage to the james bond genre, or it could have been a little more serious and been more inline with mann's own "heat" or "thief." it was a little too in the middle and dragged down by some of the lovey stuff and the ending. lastly, one of the things i like about mann is the sounds he uses. his gun fights sound better than anyone (other than speilberg's in saving private ryan). usually sound guys use stock sounds and work with those, it seems that mann, or, maybe more accurately, his sound guys (callahan/coretz) has/have his/their own set of sounds. C+.

Click - atypical sandler comedy in some ways, but completely sandler-esque in others. the first half has its share of potty humor and crude teenage-friendly jokes. while the second half shows a maturity and perspective that you rarely see portrayed in such and honest and straightforward way. that said, the second half still has some comic elements. it's interesting to compare this film to lake house for a couple reasons. both pulled their punches by showing the difficult ending, but ultimately going with the easy one. and both deal with elements of mysticism. in the lake house it asks you to believe that two people are communicating to each other across time, but in the same space. in click you are asked to believe that there's a remote control that can manipulate time. click benefits from the fact that it's a comedy and thus is afforded a greater degree of leeway. meanwhile, the lake house takes itself seriously so its mystical premise comes under greater scrutiny. both disappoint with their ending, but click makes its point better and is more entertaining in the process; it's also a more bold film because of its tonal shift halfway through. B.

Lake House - visually a more interesting film than i would have ever expected. it's not stunning or anything, but it does some things that step a bit outside of the hollywood romance mold. i suppose the film in general is like that because of the absurd premise. the physics and logistics of the film are completely absurd and not at all explained, but i suppose it's probably better that way. by not explaining it they essentially ask you to take a leap of faith - and you're either with the film or not from this point on. if you are then you're willing to look past the inconsistencies and paradoxes presented by the premise. you're also willing to look past the conversations they have which seemingly occur in realtime (complete with partial sentences and interruptions) but are actually supposed to occur in the written realm where these things wouldn't happen. but anyway, i don't want to burst your bubble if you bought this crap so onto the rest of the film. the acting isn't all that good and the ending is predicable and cowardly. if the film's ending was different i would have liked it more, but this film wasn't made for the kind of person who wants that kind of ending. by the way - keanu reeves is about as much of an architect as george costanza. D+.

Inconvenient Truth - the film begins with gore's voice over and several shots of him from behind, in the darkness. then, as he says "i'm al gore" we see his face. beginning in this way it's clear that the film is going to be more about gore's reemergence into the public eye than any pet issue of his. this documentary is ostensibly about that pet issue of global warming, but is much more in the way of explanation to the dominant question regarding gore lately: "whatever happened to him?" the answer is that he's been touring the world, asking tough questions, meeting with world leaders and organizing all in the context of doing something about global warming. most of the science is pretty well covered in a global warming episode of nova which i saw a few years back. some of the stuff is new, but it mostly serves as an cohesive intro to global warming and it's useful in that regard. but the other half is mostly shots of him looking stately and talking about personal triumphs and tribulations and portraying himself as someone with a sense of humor. it's basically a well-done campaign video that's really informative. i was a bit turned off by the commercial aspects of the film, but i have to acknowledge that the film was honest from the get go that this was going to be an al gore film, not a documentary on global warming. if you go into the film knowing that then you should be totally fine. B.

Akeelah And The Bee - T-R-I-T-E, trite. C-L-I-C-H-E, cliché. seriously though, at pretty much every turn this film, which follows a somewhat underprivileged spelling bee contestant, is cliché and cheesy. it's basically a cross between finding forrester and spellbound, only much worse. it's not that the film wasn't well-intentioned or without potential, it's just that the execution, at nearly every turn, was awful. the music swelled at cliché moments, some of the acting was transparent and forced, the writing was anything but realistic...
akeelah is supposed to be an underprivileged inner city girl who doesn't fit in, but her family seems to have plenty of money. they have a car, plenty of clothes and food, a nice tv and a computer and the home looks like something out of a design show on hgtv; it just doesn't fit. all the relationships are cut from the same cliché cloth that mars so many ambitious films. for example, her father is dead and she happens to find a spelling bee coach (fishburne) who lost his young daughter when she was about akeelah's age. the end panders to the audience by allowing everyone to be a winner (how fucking cheesy and easy is that?). i feel bad because the film had a good heart, but the filmmaking is awful so... D-.

United 93 - director paul greengrass' most famous film is the follow-up to the bourne identity, but the film most similar to united 93 is his recreation of the "bloody sunday" massacre of the 70s. this film is likely to inspire powerful reactions, good and bad. after the film i tried to listen to what other people were saying. generally people said one of two things: it's horrible that they tried capitalizing on the events of 9/11 or the passengers on the plane should have done x, y, or z. i find both these responses are silly. i didn't see any capitalization on the events - it wasn't overly dramatized, part of the profits are going to a 9/11 fund, and many of the victims' families endorsed it. further, greengrass sent out an e-mail to the theaters requesting that they not advertise before the film. the theater i saw it at didn't show any previews. as for the conjecturing about what the passengers should have done - first, all the scenes on the plane are educated conjecture so events might have unfolded differently; second, there was such a limited amount of information at the time, that expecting the passengers to react in a fully lucid and informed way is just unrealistic.
but enough about the bs surrounding the film...the film itself is quite good and tastefully done. there's very little music to accent or embellish the scenes (though the final scene does have some fairly heavy music which i would have left out or toned down). the camerawork is entirely handheld and relatively gritty which aids the cinema verite feel. greengrass kept the cast small and (mostly) unknown. there were three actors who i recognized, but none of them had significant roles. so much of the film's effort is in making the film seem an effortless fly on the wall documentary. there are plenty of edits, but not few are unnecessary. all the camerawork is naturalistic and in a documentary style. there is no comment through juxtaposition (michael moore) or framing (frederick wiseman). rather, the film is told (basically) in real-time.
the film is remarkably capable of staying out of the way of the events. it's as if the events are affecting you, rather than the film. through every step of the film i found myself comparing my experience with those of the people in the film. in this way the film is amazingly cathartic and reflective. in many ways it's like reliving those hours again in parallel ways - the way you experienced them and the way the people in the film experienced them at the same time. the film brings those experiences together much more naturally than "9/11" did, in spite of the fact that that film was a documentary. ironically, that documentary had much more artifice and exploitation, and was more affected, than the fictional recounting of united 93.
equally worthy of remark is the fact that the film stays away from commentary. the real stickler inside me would point out the music in the final scene and the endtitles as potential commentary, but i think both are negligible. at any rate, throughout the film greengrass lets the events speak for themselves. i think my thought process and reactions are as much a testament to this as anything. i felt, in equal measures, an overwhelming sense that i was part of something larger (the rally around the flag effect), as well as anger towards the administration for its inaction, as well as forgiveness for the various people involved because the scope of the events so well portrayed. that is, the film does such a good job of putting you back into that feeling of experiencing the events for the first time that, for a second, you remember what it was like before the events. we take it for granted now that four planes could be hijacked and we could be under attack. then, for most of us, this wasn't a realistic possibility. seeing people first realize the scope (we're actually under attack. how many planes could be hijacked? how long will this last? what happens tomorrow?) of those initial attacks is one of the more powerful moments in the film. again, much of the film's success in this regard is in its ability to put you, simultaneously, into the shoes of those involved and back into your own shoes. in hindsight it's so easy for us to say that people (from those in united 93 to those in the administration) should have done x, y and z, but the film makes us remember what it was like to experience the chaos of that day for the first time. again, this isn't a film about commentary. it doesn't attack, or apologize for, bush or those in the military or those at the faa.
it felt a little longish towards the end, but it's done in close to realtime so you can't really fault it for that. it's a great and moving film that does a better job of putting you back into that day than any documentary, news footage, book, or film ever has. "harrowing" only begins to describe it.
"I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." - MLK Jr. Speech in Detroit, Michigan, (23 June 1963) to me, this film may have solidified my feeling that MLK may have been completely incorrect in his quote. if no one was willing to die (or kill) for a cause then nothing like this would have ever happened. granted, MLK preached (and practiced) non-violence, but i still must disagree with his sentiment. in many ways i have to agree more with the teachings of pyrrho on this subject; perhaps inaction (or apathetic action) is preferable to the fanatical actions of those who are willing to die/kill for their cause. A-.

Cool Hand Luke - truly great film. rosenberg wasn't really a great filmmaker, but he was capable and was working with great people here. the cast does a brilliant job with a great script, but conrad hall (american beauty, road to perdition, marathon man, butch cassidy and the sundance kid) is the most underrated member of the crew. his cinematography is visionary and works well with the material. luke is a christ-like figure, but he is more nietzschean than he is christian. he demands that people "stop feeding off" him and wants only to inspire, not to lead. really, though, he does both. he shifts the brutality and "yessir boss" attitude of the camp into one that coalesces around an egg eating competition rather than weekly boxing matches. the subservient attitude which once permeated the group is replaced by one of self-impowerment and community. to me, luke is probably the most inspirational of all film characters. he's a nearly unflappable non-conformist whose power, panache, and charm are undeniable. newman's role here has always felt similar to mcqueen's role in the great escape and it's for this reason that i always compare the two actors. overall, i think i prefer mcqueen, but newman's performance here is unmatched by mcqueen or, for that matter, almost anyone in the history of cinema. my favorite line: "Boss: Sorry, Luke. I'm just doing my job. You gotta appreciate that. Luke: Nah - calling it your job don't make it right, Boss." on paper this line doesn't play all that well, but in the context, and with newman's delivery it's at a powerfully defiant mantra that highlights a melancholy truism.
1967: graduate, cool hand luke, bonnie and clyde, in the heat of the night, branded to kill, dirty dozen...they don't make 'em like they used to. A+.

Towering Inferno - inspired by the building of the world trade center this film asks the question: what would happen if there were a fire in a high rise building? the fictional building is 140 stories tall and there's a fire on the 81st floor. newman plays the architect, holden is the building's owner, and mcqueen is the fire chief responsible for the response. other stars include: faye dunaway, fred astaire, robert wagner, oj simpson, etc. to my knowledge it's the only time mcqueen and newman appear in a film together and for some reason i've always thought of them as the pacino and deniro of their time. so i guess that would make this the "heat" of their time, which is interesting since this film is about a fire and "heat" is named heat.
anyway, this is one of irwin allen's disaster films that were big in the 70s. this and poseiden adventure were probably the two most popular, but there are more: beyond the poseiden adventure, flood, swarm, etc. the formula is pretty simple: lots of stars and contrived hysteria. i preferred the poseiden adventure because it's shorter (towering inferno is 165 minutes long) and has a better subtext. the commentary here was one that looked at greed and hubris as the cause of suffering. in the end mcqueen remarks "one of these days they're going to kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps and i'm going to keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build em." newman replies "ok, i'm asking." here the problem appears solved, in the poseiden adventure things are more bleak. i definitely thought this one was good, but it was too long for its own good and the ending was a bit syrupy sweet. C+.

V For Vendetta - i liked the political elements of the work, but felt that the film was overly long and not as well-realized as it could have been. in the first reel or so of the film there was a genuine comic book look to the picture. later it seemed to lose some of the mystery and darkness that made it look like an alan moore comic might. it's worth noting that moore took his name off the credits of the film even though he was one of the two people responsible for the graphic novel...perhaps that says something. one other note about the look - v's mask probably works very well on the page, but it doesn't work as well in an animated context. because everyone else is constantly moving it makes his character seem lifeless and this detracts from our sympathy for him. that said, weaving still did a good job of breathing some life into the character. it's just a difficult aspect of the story's translation to film - one that isn't seen in other comic-based films like batman, x-men and superman because at least part of the faces are showing.
it's obviously a wachowski production - androgyny and 1984-esque socio-political commentary are prevalent. here's a good chance for me to recommend watchmen - an alan moore graphic novel that hasn't made it to film. read it and be prepared to have a good time. excellently drawn with a great story. C+.

Midnight Cowboy - a powerful classic. it has an unconventional, avant-garde style of storytelling and a bold subject matter which makes it an important film, but it also has an increasingly rare ability to mold sympathetic characters. and really that's what the film is about. after you strip away the great filmmaking style, the gritty portrayal of nyc (only upstaged by scorsese's taxi driver), and the sexual themes all you have are characters. in ratso rizzo and joe buck, schlesinger creates two of the best film characters i can think of. they're an unlikely pair, but they work together and they are great manifestations of their respective environments. it's a phenomenal film which you should have seen by now. A+.

Dead Zone - i'm not a huge cronenberg fan, but he generally has some compelling or provocative elements in his films. walken's performance was oddly kiltered. at times he was like a travis bickle at other times he was like a kindly james stewart character and occasionally he was as self-aware of his own humor as jerry seinfeld. i'm not sure if it was really good or something else. the story is reminiscent of phenomenon and unbreakable so i suppose they owe this film a bit. martin sheen's character was prophetic and made the film more chilling than it might have been even during the cold war. sound was used well. B.
Curly Sue - i can understand people not liking this film because it can be sentimental at times. but the film rises above the sentimentality that it does have. fist, the ending, while typically "happy" works within the framework. hughes actually does himself a disservice by inserting a false unhappy ending and then turning it upside down. at first we think belushi leaves, but it turns out that he doesn't. this plot twist works against him in two ways: it comes off as manipulative to some and it makes the "happy" ending seem like a cop out, when it really is the only ending that makes sense given the context of the rest of the film. in this case, a happy ending makes perfect sense and works and doesn't require any drama.
other than the ending i actually liked the film despite its cuteness. there's a cellphone gag in the film that's 10 years ahead of its time, the sound is typically great (hughes always uses sound amazingly well), and the whole film has an almost cartoonish youthfulness to its humor. there's always something to like about a hughes film. B.

Svengali - it's not often that a film's strongest element is its art direction. anton grot (mildred pierce, sea hawk, life of emile zola) does the set design in this 1931 version of the novel, which was originally entitled "trilby" after the female lead, and it's truly great. the art school sets are wonderfully eerie with a gothic (think "cabinet of dr. caligari") feel to them. in one sequence wherein svengali extends his powers of control across paris, the camera glides over grot's miniature paris rooftops. barney mcgill's german expressionism tinged cinematography rounds out grot's sets.
of course the most noted element of the film is barrymore's superb acting. he shines here with a role (think an evil version of henry higgins) that most actors probably couldn't pull off. it's a difficult character to portray effectively because he has a sense of humor, is devilish, and yet must remain tragic because of the film's end. like bogart, barrymore acts better with his hands than most people do with their entire body. without an actor like barrymore as the lead this film would be crap. archie mayo (petrified forest, a night in casablanca, etc.) directs. B+.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure - why do we like pee-wee herman? i've seen this movie maybe 10 times and i've always considered him a sympathetic character (though i'm not as obsessed about him as the burtonophiles are), but i never, until now, asked why. if you look just at pee-wee's actions it's clear that he's not a very nice person (he's got an attitude, he's mean to francis, and he is extremely mean to his closest friend - dottie), he's creepy (he talks to his food, he has an obsessive personality, he uses "x-ray glasses" to catch a look at an unsuspecting woman - she is visibly disturbed by this, etc.) and he lacks social graces (he tells patrons of a bar to shut up, etc.) if you look at these facts and strip away the context and the "charm" of the film then it's quite clear that pee-wee herman is no one we should like; but context is everything.
burton creates a world in which even pee-wee herman seems somewhat normal and nice. it's a world filled with ex-cons, deviants, thieves, devil worshiping bikers, rich spoiled kids, dead truckers, and more. we also like him for two other reasons - he's the protagonist and we almost always like the protagonist, and he's been wronged so we sympathize with his loss. the major accomplishment of the film is in creating a unique, often unpleasant character, and placing him in a wicked world so that we don't even question his many shortcomings. until now i've never heard anyone deride pee-wee and that's a major accomplishment for ruebens and burton. unfortunately, it's hard for me to see this film after paul ruebens did what he did - it casts a pedophilic shadow over the entire film that is have trouble shaking, especially in the final scene when he's watching a movie. that said, the film's still good for a ride and a laugh. B+.

Outrage - okay remake of kurosawa's rendition of the japanese short story "rashomon." the most notable thing here is james wong howe's cinematography, it pops like few films do...it reminded me of "night of the hunter," which i consider to have some of the best black and white photography ever. i liked kurosawa's movement and use of the camera more in his rendition, but you can't knock this one for its visual qualities. that said, this remake falls a bit short in other arenas. paul newman plays a mexican bandit and does his best toshiro mifune impression, but falls well short. his mistake is in trying to emulate mifune rather than making the character his own. shatner does his usual gig and, as usual, it's good. edward g. robinson is a standout as the cynical criminal character of the trio.
acting and photography aside, this film just wasn't as well directed as rashomon. martin ritt has some good credits to his name (norma rae, hud, hombre), but this one just doesn't have the same emotional resonance that the original does. at the same time it doesn't do as good a job of exploring the shifting nature of perspective, or demonstrating the relative nature of truth. there are two directorial decisions that kurosawa made that ritt left out which helped buttress these points: kurosawa has each character tell their story while facing the camera - this gives the impression that the audience is the jury; ritt doesn't do the same things with the camera movement and having the camera obscured by plants and trees - this lends well to the theme of fluidity, and is especially effective when the forest canopy obscures the sunlight when kurosawa points the camera directly at the sun (something which he may have been the first to do). B.

Love Story - somewhat embarassedly i must admit that i didn't even know about this film until a couple years ago. apparently i'm the only one as it did amazingly well and, along with the godfathers) helped save paramount in the early 70s. strangely the film started as a screenplay, was released as a book to promote the film and became a bestseller before the film became a huge blockbuster (#34 of all-time, adjusted for inflation).
it's a love story (obviously) about two young people of differing class. at the film's opening it's revealed that ali mcgraw is dead and the film tells the story of their love in flashback. noirs start at the end to reinforce the sense of fatality, but why does this film choose to begin with the knowledge that mcgraw will die at age 25? i think that it's practical demonstration of a nietzschean (think "ghost dog: the way of the samurai") idea - we can only appreciate life if we are constantly aware of our mortality. throughout the film, the specter of death hangs over the audience's entire experiencing of the events. we grow found of her and the relationship in spite of our knowledge that it is fleeting. this is how life is as well. further, i think that this knowledge lends a perspective that is absent in everyday life.
we grow fond of the characters and their relationship because it is real in so many ways. of course the writing buttresses this, as does the acting; and it doesn't hurt that mcgraw is h-o-t. the opening lines, especially when matched with the main theme, are practically enough to make you cry. the writing isn't just heavy stuff, though. there's plenty of balance in the film - she calls him preppy, he calls her a bitch, and it's all funny and naturalistic. because of the writing we know that this is a real relationship with real highs and lows, it's storybook love, but if you believe in that then the film works. if you're jaded and cynical then it'll likely come off as trite, but that's more your problem than the film's.
the score was simple, but quite effective. the aforementioned opening theme adds an emotional weight to the film. what's most interesting is to note its subtle changes as the film progresses. the most marked difference comes when o'neal leaves the doctor's office and the theme mixes with the din of city traffic; it perfectly echoes his emotional state. great film. A-.
Bruce And Me - documentary about a woman and her recluse father. it reminded me of pop & me, a documentary about a father and son who bond while on a trip around the world. there's much to be learned from the title - first, it's bruce and me, not dad and me. seidler calls her father by his first name and this reflects their emotional distance and the "grown up" childhood she lived. both her parents were hippies so she traveled the world and tripped on mdma with her dad at a young age. second, there's a documentary by agnes varda called gleaners and i...notice the grammar difference in the two titles. to me, the use of "I" over "me" indicates a subtle difference in subject. with bruce and me the implication is that the film is about bruce and me. with the gleaners and i the implication is that the gleaners and i are together. "the gleaners and i do this and that" vs. "this film is about bruce and me." if you're being grammatically correct there are limitations to I and Me and this reveals something about the respective films. the gleaners and i links the gleaners of the fields and varda as a gleaner of images in life. in bruce and me the film is about each individual - "bruce" and "me." i hope that's somewhat clear.
anyway, bruce is a vietnam vet turned hippie who now lives off the grid, doesn't pay taxes, and juggles several identities. his stories about meeting jim jones or stealing vw bugs from dealers are entertaining, but it's also interesting to see how seidler gets along with her father. there's plenty of material here to reflect upon your own parental relationships if you choose to. it's a good documentary. B.

Harlan County, USA - solid d.a. pennebaker/maysles brothers style documentary that follows the bitter miner strike in harlan county, kentucky. it predates norma rae and it's a true story so it really should be more popular than it is, but it was made before documentaries were popular. it does a really good job of highlighting the usual grievances of the workers and the ways in which they attempt to get raises, benefits, etc. it exposes the corruption of some union bosses (yablonski is challenging doyle for union president and is murdered as a result) as well as that of the company involved. it documents the (large) role that the women of the community played in keeping the picket lines strong. kopple is also there when the strike is finally mutually ended in large part because of a scab murdering a picketer. it incorporates guthrie style folk done by people of the community to give it a grassroots feel that complements the film quite well.
it's a very strong document of the american experience and the labor struggle. one portion of the film finds picketers in nyc hoping to sway stock holders of the company. one picketer discusses the labor issues with a cop. both cop and picketer get along well and discuss the merits of each other's contracts. the discussion beautifully shows the collaborative spirit that seems all but lost amongst laborers today. another scene captures this spirit equally well. a black miner is talking to kopple (who is off camera) while two of his white co-workers look on. they are in a doctor's office being tested for initial signs of black lung. the black miner tells kopple how, at the end of the day, they are coated in black coal dust - they are all brothers. the three miners chuckle knowing the truth of the statement. the film is full of these moments of solidarity in spite of the efforts of violent strike busters. B+.
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room - great film documenting the "rise" and fall of enron. it lays out in good detail how fastow, lay, and skilling built the paper empire using various schemes like mark to market accounting, opening bogus funds, lying to investors, bilking california out of $30+ billion to inflate profits, etc. it looks at a range of effects this had including the almost complete loss of personal 401k accounts of pg&e and enron employees, the myriad problems (economic and political) caused in california from the energy crisis, the thousands of jobs lost by enron employees and employees of firms (arthur anderson being the largest) associated with enron. it portrays enron's culture as one of greed, pride, machismo, and a darwinian world view. for example, skilling introduced an employee review process which mandated at least 10-15% of the employees receive the lowest grade possible on his 1-5 scale. these employees would then be let go. the film uses specific examples of failures like the one in dabhol, india which lost $1 billion for the company, yet yielded millions in bonuses for the executives who put the project together. it documents enron's role in the california energy crisis, like energy traders taking power plants offline to increase energy prices. at the same time it shows how arthur anderson and banks like citibank, merrill-lynch, and chase were complicit in enron's attempts to mask their massive losses. they explain the culture of enron's rank and file through evocation of the milgram experiment; a great way to explain how people could have done what they did, at the same time it's a stunning indictment of humanity.
one of the more maddening segments for me was the california segment because it affected so many innocent people so greatly. i still think davis got the raw end of this one - pete wilson, the legislature, and enron were more to blame than anyone else. during this segment skilling tells the following joke while giving a speech to what i assumed were enron shareholders: "what's the difference between the titanic and california? at least when the titanic was going down the lights were on." it's a stunning and rage-inducing story told quite well. the way the lies and deceit pile up and ultimately drown the executives who were purporting them reminds me of the stephen glass story as told in "shattered glass." it's amazing what pride, greed and hubris can do. in many ways this is a modern fable - a reflection of our culture and a warning to those who should hope to emulate it. this is one case where i honestly believe in frontier justice for these guys. fuck the trial, string them up and display them in the city square; well, just about anyway. should be required viewing. good soundtrack featuring tom waits and philip glass, among others. B+.

Conversation - hackman stars as a surveillance expert in this academy award nominated f.f. coppola film. it reminds me of depalma's blow-out (based upon antonioni's blow-up) in the way it features a central charcter trying to reconstruct an event in an attempt to solve a mystery by using his craft. the use of sound and music are quite good here. coppola's command of tension and suspense is also worth note. i think it's an especially relevant film because of the watergate issue since it focuses on themes of surveillance, secrecy, and privacy.
hackman justifies his work by saying he's just doing his job, that he has no control over what his clients do with his surveillance tapes once he gives it to them, yet he clearly exhibits signs of guilt over some of his past (and present) work. and he spirals into near insanity when he is the one who is being watched in the end. coppola's security camera style shot at the end works well towards this effect.
it's a solid film, one worthy of plenty of analysis, but the ambiguous ending and seemingly illogical story left me disappointed. without giving things away - the precise roles of important characters is left entirely unanswered and i can't figure out what coppola intended. then i found this: "In an interesting book by Michael Ondaatje called The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, (Vintage Canada/Random House, 2002), Murch says in an interview with Ondaatje that the twist was not part of the original plan for the movie. He goes on to explain that due to the challenges of making the recording in Union Square, he took Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams to an isolated park and made several recordings of the conversation while they strolled alone. On one of the takes, Forrest (either on purpose or by accident) changes the voice emphasis from "kill" to the word "us." At the time it was regarded as a mistake, but months later during the film editing, they decided to use the line in the picture." so it turns out that coppola may very well have not had the plot pieces lining up at all. to me that just smacks of laziness. he wants to make a certain impression, but might not even have a feasible plot worked out? lame. edit: here's the crux of my complaint: if coppola's motive is similar to 1984's then these plot holes distract from his point. as you can see i'm obsessing more over the inconsistencies of the plot than of the message the film is trying to convey. that is a direct result of coppola's inability or unwillingness to sharpen up some of the plot details. B.

Sixteen Candles - i'll give hughes a pass on this, his first, directorial effort. certainly he shows some promise - there's a good use of music and he captures the teenage experience fairly well - but overall this one falls short. it's not that he's representing the teenage experience in an entirely realistic way, though there are certainly elements of realism here, it's more that he's conveying the hopes and fears of teenagers in a somewhat outlandish story. the whole bit with anthony michael hall and his driving the prom queen type girl home or ringwald's parents forgetting about her birthday are less meant as realistic possibilities and more as symbols of what the teenage experience is about. as teenagers we think our parents don't care about us or don't notice us or ruin our love lives when they do (as exhibited by the grandparents temporarily scaring off ringwald's love interest over the phone). he also captures the hierarchy of high school, though he focuses on it more tightly in the breakfast club. high school is a caste system if there ever was one in america and this is something hughes knows and exposes. so, in many ways this is a great film because of its ability to capture the teenage experience, though it doesn't do it in a "realistic" way.
where this film fails is where its imitators failed even more miserably - the ending is cheesy. also, there is too much exposition from ringwald here. in ferris bueller's day off broderick's fourth wall commentary worked amazingly well, here ringwald's talking to herself just doesn't. but hughes quickly figured out what works and what doesn't. in the next five years he created planes trains and automobiles, uncle buck, breakfast club and ferris bueller's day off. joan cusack does a fine job. one last note - the thing that makes uncle buck and planes trains and automobiles near perfect and separate from his other work, is the discovery of john candy. john candy incorporates a working class element that is missing from his other films, an element that elevates the humor and texture of hughes's work to pantheon levels. B+.

franken describes himself as a judo artist - using the words of his enemies against them; and, essentially, that's what this documentary sets out to prove. the trouble is that it really isn't as entertaining or as thorough as his books, which is strange since chris hegedus is responsible for some pretty entertaining and informative documentaries (startup.com and the war room chief among them). don't get me wrong, it's a fun little film that pokes fun at, and keeps in check, people like michael medved, karen hughes and ann coulter, but it doesn't really add much to the debate. i think it's best suited to fans of al franken. one of the more humorous moments comes with ann coulter and al franken debating on a stage together. the mediator asks each of them who they would most like to be in history. coulter goes first and says something like this: "there are two ways of looking at the question. 1) you can be someone who did something great or 2) you can be someone in order to prevent them from doing something awful. in the first case i'd be senator joe mccarthy and in the second case i'd be FDR to stop the new deal from ever happening." al franken says something like "i think i'd rather be someone like hitler so i could stop the slaying of millions of people." it is a perfect illustration of the blinding power of hate and ideology exhibited by ann coulter and her ilk. B-.
documentary about yuppie filmmaker zach merck who sets out to live his dream of becoming a rock star. he finagles his way into a spot on the warped tour under the premise that he's a gonzo journalist who wants to do a story on the tour for rolling stone magazine. he forms an admittedly shitty punk band named carne asada and hits the road with wife in tow. by the strictest sense him and his posse are touring, but they're living in such relative comfort and luxury that it's sort of a joke. as the tour progresses he grapples with his ideas of what being a rock star means, missing his daughter, the rigors of the road, and his disappointment with his band's performance. he quickly finds that his initial notion that he'd have no problem with being part of a shitty band was flawed. the band and he discover that they can't live with being shitty and set out to have at least one decent performance. merck constructs a happy ending and all is well.
stylistically the film was too mtv for my taste. cheesy animations, too much voice-over, and a faux punk aesthetic marred the film. philosophically i felt that his wealth and connections allowed him to too easily purchase his experience. he foots the bill for all his bandmates, they rent a massive tour bus, they never run out of alcohol, and his hollywood resume (which is absent on imdb) allows him to too easily acquire a spot on the tour. merck ends the film with some thoughts on what he learned in his journey which can be essentially summed as: touring is hard work and i respect anyone who does it, and connecting with the audience is a great rush, but i like family life more. don't get me wrong, the guy seems nice enough, his antics are fairly funny, and he's pretty ballsy for being the lead singer in a punk band when he can't sing for shit and for conning his way onto the tour, but the film is mainly just fluffy reality entertainment. C.

documentary which focuses on america as a debtor nation - both as a people and as a government. it addresses some of the causes and effects of this lifestyle.
the film opens with a moving interview of an upper class woman from the las vegas area. she talks about having to spend money to make money and how much credit has helped her invest in real estate and make amazing profits. from here the film builds its base of interviewees - two mothers whose college aged kids were swamped with debt, a pawn shop proprietor, dave ramsey (the dr. phil of finance), a couple of debt buyers (the guys who call you incessantly to collect owed debts), and a few others. the filmmakers give a people's view of the subject and, as a result, seem to neglect the issue of personal responsibility a bit. certainly there are plenty of corporate and social forces acting against the average and below average person, but most of the film characterized the debtors as people who had fallen on hard times or had been taken advantage of by a credit card company. at its worst, the film demonizes creditors and their goons to the point of almost calling them murderers. this was the major weakness of the film because it undermines some of the more compelling factual evidence that the filmmakers present.
i've been in pretty deep (relative to my salary) debt and i have had people close to me in deep enough debt to file for bankruptcy so i know what debt can be about. the film explores the extremes of debt well and documents the causes just as well. that said, there was a pbs piece done on this subject that was just as in depth and lacked some of the emotional stretches that this film exhibited. while the film is heartfelt i don't know if this is the subject for this kind of emotion. instead there needs to be education and regulation. that said, the film probably provides more education than many high school grads have on the subject. B-.
very well thought out and produced documentary on heavy metal as an art form, a social lightning rod, and everything in between. he begins the film with the assumption that metal is extremely controversial and he attempts to discover what it is about heavy metal that is so divisive. first the documentary gives an overview of metal's roots from wagner, beethoven, and opera to deep purple, led zeppelin and black sabbath. he gets into academic points like the use of the diminished fifth chord and tritones, or the general qualities of a metal song - heavy bass and high vocals, etc. from here he characterizes other elements of metal: the environment (mostly the disaffected youth of suburbia), gender roles, religion, etc. in the end he concludes that metal is a) largely misunderstood and b) a victim of its own decision to constantly push boundaries and isolate itself from the dominant paradigm.
i know a bit about metal and i watched it with someone who knows more about it than anyone probably should. we both considered the film to be informative and impressive in both depth and breadth. it's the kind of film that has an infectious quality to it. after the film's end i found myself craving some iron maiden and black sabbath and it's not often that a film compels you to do something (even as simple as listening to music) after viewing it. dunn achieves this through his own passion, the aforementioned educational elements, and humor. for example, there is a frightening, yet very humorous moment, while interviewing nordic death metal vocalist gaahl (of gorgoroth). dunn asks him what the main theme of his music is. gaahl is dressed in black and doesn't look at the camera, the room is lit by candlelight and he is stoic. after a few moments he simply says "satan," and takes a drink of wine. the film is filled with entertaining interviews like this. at the same time it shows a true love for metal in its various forms and that love of the subject makes the film special. B+.

the best film (documentary) i saw at the SXSW film festival. co-directed by beesley (okie noodling, fearless freaks) and sarah price (yes men, american movie) this documentary follows the goings on at a three week nature camp. the real genius of the film is the material and the way it's edited. in a way, the film functions as an extended version of "kids say the darndest things." there are 99 children at the camp and about 10 are profiled in the film. i think that that the film succeeds because we get to see the kids in a way most films miss. these kids are real individuals. some of them are unfocused and obnoxious, others are precocious and sweet, others are mysterious and all of them are reflections of society and remind us of our own childhood. issues of family, medication, isolation, conflict resolution, etc. are raised.
the editing holds the storylines together well, has a balanced tempo, has a good balance of comedy and drama, and keeps pace and time well with shots of exteriors. the final shot of a dog under the shade of a trailer is particularly telling. as the camp closes a truck pulls the trailer away and the dog is exposed to the sun symbolizing the return of the kids to the non-camp world. as someone who has done that several times i completely understood that feeling. it's a great film that needs to be felt to be really appreciated, but it certainly gets that other part of the brain working as well. well worth checking out. B+.
aaron eckhart and helena bonham carter star in this pretentious and surprisingly uninteresting film about relationships. the film has a vertical split throughout and is notable for this reason. carter dominates on the left hand side and eckhart on the right. perhaps there is something more to this - some statement about left/right brain or male/female brains or worldviews, but i didn't see it emerge. rather, it just came off as pretentious without a purpose. actually, there were two moments when the split screen produced an interesting effect. one was when the two were very close to each other in reality, but appeared far apart because of the split - perhaps it was some statement on, or reflection of, the status of their relationship. the other is the end which sees them in separate cabs going different places, but the split disappears almost without notice and we are left with the image of the two of them in the cab together. maybe they'll always be together or something, i don't really care because neither of the characters was particularly interesting or compelling.
plotwise the film is about the two of them meeting at a wedding after not having seen each other for many years. each has moved on - she has a husband and he has a meaningless girlfriend. they spend one night together, have sex, and talk about the past. i much preferred this film when richard linklater did it and called in before sunrise. okay, it wasn't that direct of a rip off, but the general story was similar and this film wasn't all that great so i felt compelled to take a pot shot. C-.

documentary which focuses on the current state of the music industry as depicted by several interviewees involved in the music industry; people like dave matthews, bonnie raitt, questlove, ex-label executives, small artists, unknown songwriters like david poltz (who co-wrote the jewel hit "you were meant for me"), and many others. forest whitaker narrates.
they begin by giving a brief overview of the music scene of the last hundred years. they begin with blues, jazz and the black experience's effect on popular music. they contend that strife and urban dwelling make for a good environment for the development of quality music. as an aside, the documentary "metal: a headbanger's journey" makes a similar contention, but for suburbia and the disaffection that it fosters. for metal artists, it is said, being away from everything leads to strife which makes some turn to heavy metal as an outlet. in "before the music dies" the contention is that the poor, urban setting is a perfect catalyst for artists coming together and making great music. either way, hardship creates good music. all this is contrasted to today's artists who are portrayed as, largely, having it too easy and being more about image, youth, beauty, style and fashion rather than heartache and musicianship.
the filmmakers obviously have an axe to grind here and, as a music lover and someone worked in the industry for four years, i can't blame them. that said, my major gripe with the film is that it gives a rather simplistic view of the music industry - a view that is in many ways 5-10 years outdated. they spend ample time telling the story of the 1996 telecommunications act, which essentially took the ceiling off of radio ownership, and the windfall that that created. they characterize the music scene as being ruled by radio and don't really give much mention to the minor artists who have made it big outside of radio. they also portray the music scene as being extremely pop-centric when i think that now, more than ever, this is untrue. the internet, ipods, limewire, myspace, etc. have increased the breadth of music this generation is into quite a bit. granted, you're still probably not going to hear teenagers talking about amadou et mariam or sun ra, but they do listen to more stuff now than they did 10-20 years ago because it's so readily available.
while they do mention that there is money to be made outside of the major labels towards the end of the film, the film still seems to be stuck in 1998. what i mean is that the filmmakers view the music industry as being about spins, pop music, and mtv, when popular culture has disproven this with such successes as bright eyes debuting at #1 on billboard, wilco, death cab for cutie, the increase in minor labels, mars volta, arcade fire, outkast, etc. these artists either don't fit the pop mold that the filmmakers depict as so dominate, or do well in spite of not being on clear channel's 40 song playlist. implicit in their representation of the music industry is an elitism that turns many people away from so-called indie music. phrases like "some people don't like music they have to think about" add to this elitism and detract from the cause. erykah badu provides another perfect example. she distills the debate this way (roughly): "there are three kinds of artists - the bleeders who sweat over their work and feel it in their bones, the imitators who try to act like the true artists, and those who just do what they're told. they ask 'how do you want me to dance? what chord do you want me to play? oh, you want me to wear a wig? okay.'" of course she thinks of herself as belonging to the first group and, judging by the crowd's pleasant reaction to her explanation, most others do as well, but i have to wonder how many people in the audience know that she wears a wig. to me, she's as much about image as anyone else in music. granted, it's a different image, but i found her remarks throughout the film to be incredibly hypocritical. towards the end there is some discussion of the role of the internet but it seemed, in my estimation, to be given less import than it deserves.
the film essentially boils down to the ubiquitous struggle of art and money. while i agreed with some of their sentiments i found that the film was often hypocritical (badu and the rock-centric viewpoint being my two biggest points of contention) and didactic. there were certainly some high points - the illustrations of just how simply a pop song can be written or how easily a pop princess can be made were great; as were the interviews with branford marsalis, bonnie raitt and questlove. C+.
nathaniel hornblower (aka adam yauch or MCA) has a great visual mind. he's demonstrated that in the past with videos like body movin', alive, shadrach and so what'cha want, and he does it again with this concert film. it's a film shot from 61 angles, including 50 cameras which were given to fans attending the madison square garden show. yauch takes the resulting footage and mixes it together to form a pretty great idea of what goes on during a typical beastie boys show. there are plenty of shots of the b-boys performing and fans (including ben stiller and wife) dancing, but it also includes some backstage footage and footage of the beasties preparing for the encore (which they perform on the upper level). it's a great film, regardless of your feelings about the beastie boys, in part because it keeps things interesting by switching up the looks. it begins with a great fish eye lens shot of nyc and runs the gamut throughout the picture - from b&w footage to negatives to some of the weird color negatives employed on the so what'cha want video. yauch freezes the frame from time to time for effect, he also loops the video and has a little fractal segment involving a bass guitar which is pretty nifty. highlights include money mark's keyboard antics, the rattling picture during paul revere and the board game t-shirts the band wears (electronic battleship-mmm, mah jong-mca, critter-mike d, scrabble-adrock, boggle-money mark), a fan's bathroom break, and doug e. fresh's appearance.
there was a q&a after the screening. B+.

professional looking documentary on the little known, but important, private military sector. mercenaries have been around as long as war yet we don't think of them in today's world. 9/11, iraq, and afghanistan have raised the awareness and use of mercenaries.
the film pieces together the past, present and potential future of mercenaries with interviewees from a few different backgrounds. there are the intellectuals and analysts, those in the field (present and ex-mercenaries and one president of a mercenary company), and ex-military personnel. bicanic does a fairly good job of staying balanced in his representation of the role of private security companies (as they prefer to be called). he cites past successes (sierra leone in particular) and leaves room for the personal responsibility of the company, thereby avoiding condemning the entire industry. at the same time he brings up real concerns like the effect outsourcing war has on the budget, troop morale as well as its ethical implications.
it's definitely worth watching since it is, to my knowledge, a one of a kind documentary about a subject much more relevant and important than penguins and spelling bees (not that there's anything wrong with those). i would have liked a bit more exploration of the potential futures of mercenary groups, but i can understand the filmmakers's hesitance to explore this area since it would probably lend itself to a more leftist than centrist view of the subject.
edit: upon further reflection i remembered one segment in the film where the filmmakers were a bit of an anti-american bent. there was a quick shot of an american mercenary saying "america, fuck yeah." people in the audience shook their heads in disgust. at first i felt the same, but then i realized that there was a very strong possibility (because of his inflection) that he was sarcastically referencing a song in "team america." whether or not the filmmakers knew this or took it out of context accidentally i can't know. either way it should be noted. B-.
horror director j.t. petty's documentary explores the line between documentary film and fiction, as well as the psychology of the horror film audience. in a lot of ways the film is two documentaries in one. one focuses on the themes in, and social significance of, horror films. the other is a documentary that follows a horror filmmaker named eric who eventually becomes the demon of the film. in the first part, petty looks at films from peeping tom and texas chainsaw massacre to halloween and henry: portrait of a serial killer. he explores such elements as the audience being implicit in the violent act, while sympathizing with the victim at the same time; the fact that we all know movies are fake and what effect that has; our obsession with violence and death in cinema (as evidenced by early films like "the execution of mary scott" 1895 and "electric elephant" 1903); as well as the masochism of the audience.
the first part of the documentary which explores the role of the audience in horror films is interesting from a philosophical and academic perspective. is the audience implicit in the actions of the film's bad guy? are we morally reprehensible because we watch this stuff and get pleasure out of it? why do we want to see this done to people? why do we like to be scared? do we feel more alive through the possibility of death? what role does the fact that this is all fake play? what about snuff films? why do some constantly seek out more and more extreme films?
the second half of the film follows eric, who is a horror film director who becomes increasingly unstable as the film progresses. eric's films are about a man who follows women on the street, picks them up and then murders them in various ways. petty begins to wonder how much the woman are aware of the fact that they are being followed. through editing, petty essentially creates his own cinematic demon, in eric. much of the film's charm is in picking up on petty's manipulation of eric's words. petty follows eric, just as eric follows the women, in order to see just how far eric is actually going with his stalking. in doing this petty implicates us because we want to know the truth behind eric's actions as well. in this way, petty brilliantly manipulates both the facts and our emotions in an attempt to call attention to the audience's desire to know. in many ways he is attacking reality tv and films like march of penguins or winged migration which are anthropomorphic to the extreme or create filmable situations and present them as natural when they are anything but. B+.

sometimes funny, sometimes frightening film about an ex-con who arranges a meeting with a gay guy via a chat room. the middle portion of the film is dedicated to his quest to find transportation. first he goes to a job counselor (or something similar) to borrow a car under the premise that he needs to use it for a job interview, then he goes to a bar and yells at a friend (?) hoping to use his car, lastly he goes to a market and steals the keys to a woman's minivan. the ending was chanced upon by the filmmakers and it's obvious. it's a car crash and the ex-con wanders around as if to help the victims, but mainly just asks questions. doesn't make much sense.
the two most interesting things about the film were that the lead is played by a cop who does a lot of undercover work who met the director while he was working at a library and the cop was checking out kurosawa films. the cop does a good job of acting. the other is the excuse his character gives to the man he picks up when he asks the ex-con why he doesn't consider himself gay. he says that, in latin culture, he's not considered gay because he's still the aggressor. interesting. C+.
the two standout elements of this film were the soundtrack and the stunts/choreography. the soundtrack features a bunch of work by some guy i've never heard of named da octopusss and it's basically big beat type of electronica, only bigger. the choreography is reminiscent of tony jaa's work on ong-bak: thai warrior and everything jackie chan has ever done. this is a better film than ong-bak because of the soundtrack, pacing and social commentary elements, but the choreography in ong bak was probably better. that said, the stunts here are pretty cool.
visually the film is better than the standard fair because of the gritty, saturated look which complements the themes/settings. speaking of which, the film is essentially just a french remake of escape from new york with the caveat that the protagonist is a good guy instead of an ex-con. the film is also reminiscent of danny the dog (unleashed in the U.S.) which makes sense since luc besson wrote this one as well.
in order to make some of its political points it does tend toward the preachy near the end, but that's forgivable. it's clear from films like this and cache, and from reading the news, that the french/muslim problem is getting worse these days. there really seems to be an upswell of french art (a hip-hop scene is growing there as well) that is addressing this fact. one other note is that the subtitles in the film weren't too amazing - the translation could have been better. speaking of subtitles, there seems to be a trend of films that have the subtitles interact with the action on the screen. subtitles might appear or disappear based upon the movement of characters across the edges (think "man on fire"). it's something to look out for. B.

a very fine smaller, female version of hoop dreams. it's not the sweeping epic with amazing incisiveness and depth that hoop dreams is, but it tells a heartfelt story along the same lines and adds the caveat of an eccentric coach and a female team.
whereas hoop dreams was rich in cultural, social, racial and economic fodder, heart of the game is more a fly on the wall look at an eccentric girl's high school coach (ressler) and the teams he coachs over the 6-7 years that the film covers. i think that this film is slightly more about the game than hoop dreams and that might turn off some viewers, but, really, this aspect of the film can be extrapolated to reveal things about life and society. the game sequences are more plentiful than they are in hoop dreams, but this drama is easily relatable because the games are often in the context of something larger like redemption, perseverance, or growth.
without getting too much into the minutiae of the film and its plot, lemme say that the film becomes as much a film about ressler's star player (darnelia) as it is about ressler and his approach to the game. she is a willful, black, lower class student attending an upper class, predominately white school with an equally willful, focused and driven basketball coach. they are good foils for each other and it's fun and compelling viewing to see their personalities at work.
don't let the sports setting turn you off of this film. it really has something for everyone and is a well-done, heartfelt and provocative documentary. i enjoyed serrill's hands off, maysles brothers-esque, fly-on-the-wall approach and i think it's the best film of the festival so far. ludacris narrates. B+.
here's an example where an ensemble cast actually works. i think it works because of two major points: the script is solid and it's a comedy. ensemble comedies have less stress and less burden than ensemble dramas. with an ensemble drama you almost have to hit it out of the park because it's like having a bunch of sluggers in the line up - if you don't score 10 runs a game, you're going to be a disappointment. here, though, the cast is full of non-comedian actors doing comic drama. by not comedian i mean none of the big names are seen as comic actors first. mcdormand, keener, aniston, and joan cusack head up the female dominated cast.
as a comedy the film is successful because a) the writing is sharp, candid and witty b) the actors, though not strictly known for their comic chops, do well with the material c) it's relatable and fresh (because of its honesty). as a drama the film is also successful, though there was much less of a focus on this aspect. it works, though, because we like the characters because they make us laugh. often dramatic films forget that characters who make us laugh are just as sympathetic as characters who move us; not to mention the fact that it's easier to draw a funny character than a heavy one. drawing a heavy one requires a greater balance between the sympathetic and the pathetic/maudlin. at any rate, these characters were true to life and likable because of their humor.
aniston plays the loser of the group and her character reminded me of jane adams's frail character in happiness. mcdormand plays an incessantly peeved designer, cusack is the rich one, and keener plays arguably the most textured of the group. keener is a talent. B.
yet another ensemble film, this time directed by mark rydell (cowboys, james dean story) and produced by bob yari (crash). this film made me realize how much of a collaboration filmmaking really is. every person in the chain has to share the burden of telling the story to the audience. if the score doesn't fit then the burden falls more on the acting or the direction or the cinematography. great films have a capable and inspired crew which shares the burden equally. this film did not do that.
the direction was definitely the worst element of the film. while the broad story had potential and the cinematography was decent (lots of interiors and dark locations gave a claustrophobic feel), the direction just didn't hold up its end of the bargain. some minor examples include all the basketball sequences which were clearly shot by someone who has no understanding or love of the game. or how about the blackjack sequence wherein basinger gets a bout of bad luck - she busts with 22 hand after hand after hand; it's just not realistic and it was done in, frankly, a cheesy way. the entire premise of the final scene relied on us believing that a major gangster was interested in a high school basketball game. i'm sure there are some high school games with some decent action, but it just didn't make sense in this instance. the most disturbing choice was the use of voice-over at the beginning and end of the film. here, rydell spells out exactly what he wants you to get from the film and then summarizes things for you nicely at the end. sometimes a film can get away with this, other times it cannot. C.

i'm getting a bit tired of the ensemble dramas. i'm not sure if this trend (if there is indeed one) is for a social reason or merely because of the success of films like crash or love actually; nor do i care. i don't have anything against them, per se (short cuts and magnolia are great), but it seems like they are becoming the next big thing and for no great reason. it doesn't elevate your story to throw a bunch of supposedly good actors into the same room. this one features the talents of marcia gay harden, linda cardellini, donald sutherland, forest whitaker, etc.
the plot is less an intertwining of storylines and more a paralleling. each of the storylines have a set of common themes, chief among them: guns and family. this recalls a rage against the machine lyric from bulls on parade (republicans): "rally round the family with a pocket full of shells," but i digress. each character is in some way affected by guns - whether it is the abuse of guns or a perceived power that they gain from having command of one. this equity may have been the film's strongest element. avelino (who was in attendance) did a good job of not making an easy anti-gun film.
sadly, the film lacked in some more fundamental ways - characterization, dialogue and some story elements. characterization was mostly thin, a drawback of the ensemble film. i think that many directors have difficulty with creating living, full characters and when you thin out a character's screen time you amplify this deficiency. some of the writing was also weak. dialogue was occasionally unrealistic or affected and there were too many cliche story elements. his columbine recreation capitalized more on the effect of the actual event than it did on any created drama or emotion. some of the cardellini storyline, too, was something more appropriate for an after school special than a moving treatise on gun use.
all that said, the film was (with a couple notable exceptions) fairly well acted and did manage to create some emotionally resonate scenes. above all, the film served as an adequate catalyst for thought on this issue, so, while it wasn't all that well executed, it wasn't a waste either. C.
documentary about filmmaker alan berliner who battles insomnia. berliner is cut from the woody allen cloth - he looks jewish, is well-educated, and is neurotic in a humorous way (at least to the audience). he tells the story of his many sleepless nights and their consequences through voice-over, testimonials, stock footage, interviews (with doctors, family), etc. it's hard to make a film about yourself, but he's taken a page out of ross mcelwee's book and done a pretty good job of being open and honest. it's only when a filmmaker holds things back or makes excuses or refuses to be candid that a film like this really suffers.
sleep, or the lack thereof, is the focus of the film, but he uses it as a springboard to other topics. for example, he argues that the amount of sleep a person gets could very well determine things as disparate as presidential decisions to world series outcomes. for berliner, quality of life is associated with the amount of sleep one gets. this idea becomes an obsession. he makes a film about it, he stays up at all hours of the night working on his film in various ways, he sees several doctors about the problem, he researches the issue, he talks with his family about it and eventually all of this comes to a head with his wife. his obsession and his insomnia hurt the relationship and hamper his ability to be with his newborn son. the film ends with his resolution to address the problem in earnest.
after the film, berliner talked about the fact that the resolution at the end of the film was one he didn't really take to heart. the doctors proposed resetting his clock, but he rejected the idea because he felt that it would cut into his creative time too much. he has resolved to get control of his sleeping pill problem and hopes to incorporate his son into his new project in an attempt to balance family and creativity.
unlike small town gay bar, this is a real documentary made by someone who clearly understands how to tell a story, keep you interested and add some depth to the film. there's plenty here to chew on, regardless of your relationship with sleep. B.

Day After - rare example of a tv movie that is actually well done. "brian's song" is the only other film i can think of that falls into that category. it's a pretty chilling telling of what might happen in anytown usa in the case of a nuclear attack. it takes place in kansas city and starts soon before the nuclear war begins. russia escalates things in west germany (the film was made in 1983) and then we escalate things and missiles are fired. it all happens very quickly and we don't see much behind the scenes stuff. this is effective because it gives us the same sense of disconnection that 99% of the population might feel. the film deals with the topic and the dirty aftermath in a sober and straightforward way. it's not sullen, maudlin, or heavy handed, but it has the requisite weight.
one woman character in the film remarks that she isn't too concerned about the russians invading w. germany because we don't have as much of a stake there, she adds: "if the russians were taking oil from saudi arabia then i'd be worried." prophetic if you ask me. a mother remarks to her family "we're lucky to be alive" the father responds "we'll see how lucky that is." there's nothing fancy or poetic in that remark, but it beats the point home well nonetheless. the only point in the film where the filmmakers come off as didactic is the final note which essentially states that the film was made with the hope that it would sway the leaders of the world to find peaceable solutions to their differences. it also states that the aftermath depicted in the film is likely more severe than would be experienced by the average person in such a situation. i could have done without both of these end notes. B.
good documentary which examines the roots, impact, and effect the word "Fuck" has on our culture. anderson uses myriad cultural texts from the big lebowski, pulp fiction, bad santa, planes trains and automobiles, fuck the police by n.w.a., an interview with a cubs manager, and numerous quotes from the bible, philosophers and ex-presidents to paint a broad portrait of the ways in which we use and react to the word. some of the interviewees include: ice-t, kevin smith, jeanine garofalo, pat boone, miss manners, tera patrick, sam donaldson, chuck d, drew carey, alan keyes, ron jeremy, hunter s. thompson, bill maher, etc.
to me george carlin has always been my hero when it comes to our culture's hypocrisy on this subject, but i know that a lot of his work is indebted to lenny bruce - who i just never found to be that funny. anyway, beyond carlin's the seven deadly words routine, anderson adds some legal evidence (fcc vs. pacifica), the bono incident, the janet jackson incident, and some numbers like: number of complaints to the fcc in 2000: 40,000; 2001-04 (during bush's reign): almost 8 million (99.9% of which were brought by a single "family values" group). anderson touches on the culture war aspect a bit, mostly through his interviewees, but generally keeps things civil. he pokes fun at some ex-presidents who have used the word: bush jr. said "fuck saddam" at some point and LBJ once said something like "pantyhose are awful because they ruin finger-fucking."
well done, moves along nicely, and is entertaining. i thought he should have edited in pat boone's crude joke from roger & me since boone was so anti-cursing, but you can't win them all. B.
decent documentary about small town gay bars in mississippi. it opens with establishing shots of middle america and then goes into a profile of "rumors" a gay bar in NE mississippi. most of the film focuses on the life of this one bar and it branches off a bit from there - profiling one other bar (crossroads) in a tiny town (under 2,000) in MS, one martyr associated with rumors (scotty), and one hater of all things gay (the infamous fred phelps). just as fred phelps would depict homosexuals as stereotypical child molesters who look like the village people, leftists use fred phelps as their token bible thumping zealot. while it's true this guy is awful, i think he's appeared on too many news programs and documentaries by now. i first saw him on michael moore's "the awful truth" but he's appeared in several things since then. i honestly think it would be better to ignore the guy so he'd lose some of his power. but i digress...
one thing i found disturbing is that, like phelps, scotty's brother felt that scotty was killed as part of god's plan. phelps thinks scotty was sent to hell for his sinning and the brother thinks scotty was chosen as a martyr to make the gay community stronger. this sort of thinking, while it may make each feel better, is so presumptuous and ugly i would know how to begin to denounce it.
for most of the first half of the film ingram uses the music well and tells the story in a fairly efficient way. in the first half i enjoyed the music choices - mississippi queen takes on a new meaning and he had a familiar song about turning away in the context of gays not coming out of the closet. in the second half, though, i think he runs out of material. he has a lot of false endings: he chose music that felt like it was building to a close and he'd play it for its entire length as you might when ending a film. he'd also fade to black during these sequences, thereby giving you the feeling that the film was coming to a close. unfortunately he did this for at least the last 30 minutes which has a tiring effect on the audience. another thing he did, seemingly in an attempt to pad the runtime, was add two montages of interviewees standing outside of rumors while the music played. these, and other, superfluous scenes really detracted from the film. had it been 50 minutes, instead of 81, it could have been a full grade better.
the audience was extraordinarily kind to ingram during the q&a after the film. i was actually a bit surprised that no one challenged him on anything (like the easy choice of phelps as the film's demon, or the poor editing, or the choice to tell the story of basically just one gay bar, or...) C.

Brokeback Mountain - first the bad: i thought the music was trite and unimpressive. they did a bad job of aging ledger, so much so that you could see his makeup; these are not hallmarks of a best picture nominee. it's a bit on the slow side and if i were to watch this at home, rather than in the theater, i would probably give the picture a full letter grade lower; but my tolerance in a theater is higher. in a way, this film was like an extended, gay version of the middle part that ruined "crouching tiger, hidden dragon." the film was relatively low on character development. a typical anthony mann western has more character development in 15 minutes than this had in 2 hours and 15 minutes.
now the good: the cinematography was pretty good, though not great. gyllenhaal's performance was a strength in part because he character was more sympathetic than ledger's. ledger seemed less gay and more interested in the relationship as a sexual and mental release from his domestic life. early in the film it could be argued that ledger did it for one of the same reasons that men in prison turn to each other for sex - necessity rather than choice. later in the film it seems that he looks forward to their time together more as an escape than as a way of bonding with a partner. as a result i found myself sympathizing with gyllenhaal's situation more. as the film winds down it tugs on our heart strings because of the guilt and regret ledger feels as a result of his relationship with gyllenhaal.
i didn't think it was a great story and i didn't think it was a bold statement. on a scale of 1-10 of impressiveness (1 being paris hilton's intelligence, 10 being jerry rice's football career) i'd say the film's courage was about 6. there was a certain element of risk involved, but i think it was a calculated risk and a risk that was clearly justified. i'd have been more impressed if the film failed at the box office, or if this was released prior to beau travail, boys don't cry, or philadelphia. really, though, the courage of a film doesn't matter that much to me so even if it was released 20 years ago it wouldn't have affected my grading that much. the real draw of the film is emotion behind the film. we feel for gyllenhaal and williams in an honest way and that really sustains the film. the social stuff and hype are mostly just undeserved background noise. this isn't a great film, but it is a good one. B-.

Poseidon Adventure - solid film produced by irwin allen (towering inferno) about a cruise ship that capsizes on new year's eve. the crew is forced to find their way through the ship to the hull hoping that they can reach help from there. the set pieces are notable. everything is upside down and all the sets are flooded at some point in the film. the filmmakers manage to put together a pretty suitable story. in functions well from on an allegorical level (their world is turned upside down on the new year and they are under water [rebirth], etc.) and it also allows them to work in more base elements like the women shedding their dresses early on in order to climb to safety; this leaves them in their knickers throughout the remainder.
also impressive is hackman's character; he really is the axis of the film. he plays a preacher who has been outcast because of his unorthodox beliefs. in the beginning he gives a sermon espousing his belief that we all have god within us. god doesn't want us to be weak, he says, he wants us to help ourselves - he wants us to be strong. early after the ship capsizes most of the crew chooses to stay in the ballroom hoping that someone will come to save them, but a few follow moses, er hackman, to the hull of the ship. of course hackman is solid and he sells the martyr ending in a way that a lesser actor wouldn't. once at the hull the remaining survivors bang on the ceiling hoping god, er the rescuers, will cut the hull and free them.
it's a good flick that functions on several levels and that's the real key here. B-.
Caché (Hidden) - the most difficult films to review are the ones that may be great, but for unclear reasons. films that affect you, make you think, and are well-constructed, yet still, somehow, evade easy analysis. cache, directed by michael haneke, is like some of abbas kiarostami's better films (namely a taste of cherry and the wind will carry us) - films that are somehow able to teach without being didactic and say something without being overly specific. we get impressions, ideas, and brushstrokes of a master's work while being spared the overt didacticism that sinks so many films which try to make a point. at the same time it manages to not turn into syriana, which suffered from a lack of character and plot development.
but let me bring it back a bit...the film follows a family (man, woman, son) who begin to get tapes and drawings left on their front door. the tapes are simple shots of their house from the outside and the drawings depict a boy with blood coming out of his mouth. it's all very mysterious at first, but haneke slowly reveals the hidden layers which illuminate the mystery - or do they? it's a difficult plot to summarize, especially without giving the film away completely. as the film progresses the tapes get more personal and the husband and wife are pulled apart by the things the husband hides from her. adding another layer to the film is the fact that the protagonists are french and the apparent maker of the tape is an algerian from the husband's past.
in one critical scene, wherein the parents discover their child missing, news coverage of the current iraqi war is on the television in the background. in doing this, haneke expands his exploration of the effects of colonialism as portrayed in this more personal form. first he has the french-algerian aspect, and here he adds a more modern context to the discussion. but the film isn't just about politics. that's only one element of the multi-faceted story haneke has crafted. also bubbling underneath are more immediate issues of trust, loyalty and the future. i draw the kiarostami parallel because all three films have unconventional (by american standards) endings. in cache we see the son of the algerian and the son of the protagonists talking in the distance, but we don't know what they're saying or how much time has passed. what exactly is said, though, isn't that important. we see the two sons get along much better than their fathers, and that's the important point. despite the harsh way in which haneke depicts the husband and wife (representing the bourgeoisie), maybe he holds hope for the future. or, maybe, this is the most paranoia producing scene in the film. maybe the sons were in cahoots the entire time. i don't think it's really possible to know.
stylistically the film is stripped down. there is no music and the sound design is very organic, again like a kiarostami film. like kurosawa, haneke employs contrasts throughout the picture. long, slow, dark scenes will be followed by more busy, brighter scenes. his edits in these cases are harsh and jarring. another style/editing choice was the way he introduced the new tapes that were sent to the protagonists. we would get an exterior shot of their flat for a minute or two and then it would pause, rewind and they would speak over it. in this way, haneke, in a sense, is telling us that we can't believe what we see. throughout the first 2/3 of the film there are scenes of this kind. later, when the husband is editing some footage for his television show, there is a shift. is he controlling the film's action now, or is this where he loses control?
it's a cryptic film to be sure and there is no clear resolution, but that doesn't make the film any less engrossing while you're watching it. it does make it all the more maddening afterwards, but i don't really have a problem with that. maybe that's the point. this is definitely the kind of film that needs to be watched again. B+.

Block Party - great documentary following dave chappelle while he plans his dream block party. i'm not going to comment on the music or the comedy because you should probably know your feelings on both by now. chappelle is what he is (great, in my opinion) and the music is what it is (mostly good, though the fugees showed plenty of rust). rather, i find it more interesting to look at the editing and the film as a marker in the career of dave chappelle.
the editing reveals a subtle fact that we might want to ignore, but one that i think is important: these guys aren't genius by accident, they work at it. like "comedian" showed rory what's his face and jerry seinfeld honing their material, block party shows (to a lesser extent) the musicians and dave chappelle working on their material. sure, there's plenty of natural talent here, but it's more inspiring to see a guy work on his delivery and timing and the subtitles of his delivery in practice than it is to see a genius come up with things on the fly. that said, both are here. chappelle's encounter with "mr. t" is one such example. chappelle couldn't have planned for that and yet he makes the encounter fun and funny. certainly some of the best humor of the film is unplanned, but i really enjoyed the way gondry intercuts the live performance of a joke or musical piece with its rehearsal. it's like one of the students says at the end of the film: "dave chappelle is just a guy, like me."
chappelle's career, i think, is entering its third stage. the first stage was his film career which was marked mostly by bit parts and the cult break out of half baked (directed by tamra davis - mike d's (of the beastie boys) wife). the second stage of his career started with killing them softly and ended with his trip to africa. this was filmed during the second stage and was released during the third stage of his career. it's interesting to see him evolve as a person and as a public figure. great artists always have different stages in their career wherein their material or performances or work changes shape. chappelle's work has matured and i think we'll see him be more overtly political and socially conscious in the future. this isn't to say that his work in the second stage of his career wasn't conscious, it really was, but it was possible to miss. maybe in the future it won't be. B+.
16 Blocks - two films with mos def and "block" in the title in one visit to the theater. odd.
75 year old richard donner (superman, goonies, lethal weapon 1-4) makes a bit of a return to his previous form here after some poor films like assassins and timeline. mos def is a witness who needs to get to the courtroom in 2 hours and willis is the cop who has been assigned to take him there. willis is aging well as an actor. though he's still slated to do die hard 4, i think he understands that he can't be the same type of action star anymore. hostage and 16 blocks show an understanding of his age. in both he appears aged and weary. in this film he plays a cynical lush who has a less than perfect record of service. but there is still potential and the audience knows this because of his reputation. just as deniro capitalizes on his tough guy roles of the past in doing comedies like meet the parents and analyze this, willis brings a credibility to the screen because of his previous work.
the first half of the film is relatively engrossing and sharp, but it peters a bit as the film progresses. one major flaw is that it falls into the usual genre sympathy ploys and tricks in the final reel. sometimes the switch-a-roo works (bandits) and sometimes it's too obvious (16 blocks). all in all, though, it's a pretty good film if you're looking for a good, easy time. willis and mos def do a good job with basic genre characters and i didn't find myself checking my watch too often. B-.

Match Point - first i'll be nit picky to get it out of the way: i didn't buy meyers as a professional tennis player. his stroke is decent, but it didn't look professional.
the thing that most reviews of this film have in common is that this is an un-woody allen like film. good or bad, the reviews i've heard generally mention this. i disagree with this assertion. first, woody allen, though generally a director of a certain style, does do films that don't fit the annie hall mold. he's done a fake documentary, a musical, and he's inserted darker themes and crime into his films before. so, while it's not the prototypical woody allen film, it still has the woody allen signature. thematically it's very similar to crimes and misdemeanors, it has the same elevated language of the rest of his films, it's heady, and it has the same color palette as a good number of his films. also, though it's not a comedy, it does have some comic moments which serve to break the drama a bit.
when i heard that the film was a basic moral tale my first response was: "who the hell is woody allen to be telling a moral tale?" personally i don't see the film as a moral tale. sure, it has a simple message about luck and guilt and fidelity and priorities, but i felt these were better conveyed and explored in crimes and misdemeanors. i also felt that sven nykvist's (bergman's right hand) cinematography was superior, and more fitting, in that film. that said, i felt that the ending was more chilling in this film than it was in c&m, but i don't know that c&m was going for chilling so...
one complaint i heard about the film is that the middle doesn't evolve much; it's sort of the same thing over and over again. i found that there were subtle changes in the dynamic of the characters and their situation. i was actually more interested in the middle part of the film than i was in the denouement, which i found to be somewhat chilling, but otherwise a let down.
i liked watching the film, but it's not the kind of film i'm going to go back to over and over again and, for that reason alone, i can't say it's one of the year's best. the acting was good, i liked allen's command of the language, and i thought it did more for london than "manhattan" did for manhattan (but i think that movie is overrated). i guess this is one of many examples where there are people who love it and people who hate it and i come down somewhere in between. B.

Grizzly Man - i have to agree with dave chappelle when it comes to calling people crazy. just because you don't understand this guy that doesn't make him crazy. when i first heard about this film i pictured a grizzled man living amongst the animals with herzog capturing it all. this initial expectation is important because grizzly man is pretty much the exact opposite.
the film's protagonist shot all the material himself. afterwards herzog takes the footage, adds some interviews from friends and experts and weaves together the story of the protagonist. instead of an unshaven mountain man living with bears we see a clean shaven, rich, prima donna who thinks he's saving the world. he's always clean shaven, posturing in front of the camera, and bragging about his exploits in the area.
all this isn't very noteworthy and it made me wonder why herzog (and so many critics) found the subject so compelling. sure, there's a man vs. nature component, but it just wasn't all that provocative. herzog's editing didn't tell any great story. for example, he didn't show the more sane moments of the protagonist at the beginning and then the less lucid moments at the end. he didn't weave together any sort of compelling story arc. really, the most interesting element of the film was his voice-over commentary which i found to be somewhat separated from the reality of the protagonist.
an over-rated and underwhelming documentary which provides only a few moments of unprompted thought. C-.

When A Stranger Calls - better than i expected. i have seen the original (1979) and its sequel (don't ask why, i don't even know), but this one is the best. it's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it ratchets up the suspense fairly well throughout the picture. i think that most will consider it too slow, but i found it to be well-paced.
there were a few too many "cat jumping into the frame" type of scares, but other than that i felt that the scares were well-built. it didn't rely too much on tightening the music or sudden cuts (though it did use those). it actually built some scares in pretty respectable ways. the director would establish a pattern of subjective camera shots and then switch that pattern by cutting to a shot of the protagonist. the effect of this is that the audience expects to see what she is seeing, but when west cuts to a shot of the protagonist it gives the impression, for a second, that she is the stalker. it's a minor effect produced entirely through editing, but it's efficacious. a good enough portion of the film is psychologically scary and the acting isn't horrible so i'll give it a B-.

Breakfast Club - a classic teen comedy from the great john hughes.
it's been a little while since i've last seen this one so there were a few things i had forgotten. it's always interesting to see what elements or scenes from a film i forget after i've gone a while without seeing it. in this instance i forgot the very beginning - the quote and the breaking of the opaque, black glass - and the very end - the unlikely romances. it's interesting because this film has always been about a couple things: us (the powerless/students) vs. them (the power structure/teachers) and the bonds forged between the unlikely groups represented by the five kids.
one can view the film in at least two ways: the kids are just individual kids, with their own problems OR as the letter with which the film begins and ends states, the kids are archetypes - the brain, the outcast, the queen, the jock, etc. i think the film is enjoyable and relevant either way, but the ending is more palatable if viewed in the second way. i found the ending, which finds the jock and the weirdo, and the bully and the queen, hooking up, somewhat disturbing this time around. what is it saying? the brain doesn't get any action, the queen forgives judd nelson, and the weirdo gets a makeover and subsequently hooks up with the jock. what's the deal? is it a statement that the jock and judd nelson are reformed? is it a statement that, deep inside, the queen and the weirdo still crave the bad boy and the jock? is hughes trying to make a utopian statement that all kinds can mix? is it that we're all the same when we open up and drop the front? i certainly see the humanity of all the characters, and understand that they are, at least somewhat, symbolic archetypes. when i first watched it, the breakfast club struck me on this level: maybe the cool kids aren't as vaunted as i thought. in that sense the film will always be a success, and a must-see. at the same time, hughes interjects the reality of the situation - the kids openly acknowledge the temporary nature of their new found friendships. this might explain the quickness with which the queen and the weirdo accept judd nelson and the jock. is hughes building and destroying this utopia in one fell swoop? maybe it isn't about utopia, maybe it's a harsh reality - we ARE all the same underneath, but we'll never acknowledge it openly.
there are a lot of questions that the film brings up. there are also a lot of truisms and wonderful insights. despite being 20+ years old (wow), the film barely shows it age. some of the language is outdated and judd nelson rearranging the card catalog is funny, but probably wouldn't even register to kids these day. that said, the film has aged well and is universal in so many ways that it really is a classic. A-.

Walk The Line - i wouldn't classify myself as a huge cash fan, but i definitely like the guy. naturally i was hesitant when i heard about the film, but i finally watched and must say i wasn't disappointed.
the first two minutes of the film begin at folsom prison with the rhythm line of "folsom prison blues" playing somewhere deep within the prison. the sound here, as it is throughout the film, is just great. it's tight, strong like a train, and heavy on the reverb to give the impression that the music is coming from the center of a cavern. as the credits roll the music gets louder and the camera gets closer to the stage, which lacks cash. the inmates are beating along to the rhythm and the tennessee three are punching out the rhythm section while waiting for johnny. it's a powerful few minutes, especially for those who know the power of his work. the camera goes "backstage" where phoenix is in front of a bandsaw thumbing its teeth pensively. from here we go back a number of years and it's not until about 60 minutes into the film that we pick up where we left him in the prison. it's a great beginning that draws you in immediately. don't be like the dozen or so texans i saw who strolled into the film 5-20 minutes after the start time.
the music and the sound were absolutely great. i can't remember a film with such a good use of sound since the aviator (which was nominated for an academy for its sound - it lost to ray). i think that walk the line had a better use of sound than ray or aviator. take note during cash's outburst in a hotel room during which he collapses and the music loops backwards and forwards with one of songs building slowly in the background. difficult to describe, but trust me it's good; as is the rest of the film in this regard.
i liked most of the performances. the woman who played cash's first wife (vivian) was less than stellar, but otherwise it was a solid cast headed up by oscar worthy performances by phoenix and witherspoon. she's sassy, fun and strong. his voice is pretty close to cash's, and his performance captures the cash fairly well. i still think hoffman should win though. phoenix first piqued my interest in 1992 with to die for. since then he's gone largely unnoticed to the mainstream so it's good to see him get such a big role.
johnny cash's songwriting is his strength. he captures the essence of the proletariat struggle and the pain of existence so succinctly and in such a heartfelt way. add to that the fact that his songs are always so steady and walk the line (pardon the pun) between folk, country and rockabilly so well, and you have a man who truly is a legend.
could this be the new hollywood? we know that hollywood can't tell new, original stories the way it used to. perhaps hollywood could be the source of blockbusters (which it has always done well) and biographies. i suppose that wouldn't be such a bad thing. we'll see how it shakes out, but there certainly does seem to be a trend: ray, walk the line, capote, north country, frida, erin brokovich, monster, hotel rwanda, aviator, ali, beautiful mind, etc. all based on true stories, all of a high caliber. anyway, walk the line is great, check it out. B+.

McLibel - not a very engaging or balanced look at the libel case in england which found two working class stiffs going against mcdonald's. mcdonald's sued them for passing out flyers which detailed the various ways in which mcdonald's was bad for the world (pollution, health, animal cruelty, etc.). the dramatizations were done by ken loach which was surprising because he's reputed to have talent. also, not to be a mcdonald's advocate, but a lot of the data was false as much of the film is outdated; the same is true for "Fast Food Nation," the author of which is interviewed throughout the picture.
overall, i felt that the film was more libelous than the leaflets for which they were sued. i'd skip this one. C-.

Office Space - a modern classic, especially for guys in their 20s and 30s. it's not only a brilliantly told comedy, it's also comedic telling of the modern condition. there really is a lot of brilliant observations and truisms within this film. from the opening scene which shows michael bolton listening to scarface while locking his door as a homeless black man walks by his car to the electric shock ron livingston's character gets as he opens the metal door leading to his cubicle. the film is full of small observations which often get overshadowed by the brilliant discussions of flair and tps reports.
one wouldn't think a film like this, done by the creator of beavis and butt-head, to be technically noteworthy, but office space certainly is. judge's use of music, for example, not only elevates the film, but the music as well. tracks like the aforementioned "no tears" by scarface go from relative unknowns to perfectly placed near classics. the same goes for tracks by the geto boys, ice cube and perez prado. judge's direction during montage sequences like the copier destruction and the virus implant is excellent. it's funny, well-executed, and dynamic, yet not showy or out of his depth. i am looking forward to his next live action effort: idiocracy, starring luke wilson. A+.
Pieces Of April - a wonderful thanksgiving film that, without being too corny, shows us all the true meaning of the holiday. off the top of my head i can only recall one thanksgiving picture that is better than this one: planes, trains and automobiles (of course).
hedges wrote what's eating gilbert grape and about a boy, but this is his first foray into direction. both are in top form here. his characterization and the way he complements it with his direction is a thing of beauty. natural lighting, almost exclusive use of diegetic (source) music, and handheld camerawork all add to a dogma feel, but without all the stuffiness of some of the work (especially by von trier) put out under this heading. the writing is well-balanced and naturalistic. A-.
Closer - an odd film from mike nichols (catch-22, who's afraid of virginia woolf?, the graduate). odd because i didn't know what to make of the ending. i think that that's intentional. nichols wants you to know the power and effects of deceit. i think that clive owens is the key to the film because he's the only character who never lies. everyone else, cheats and lies about it. he cheats and tells roberts about it. i won't get into the plot anymore than that.
nichols takes all the love and sex out of the relationships. what we're left with are relationships we know very little about. all we really know is how they are formed and how they end. it's an interesting way of telling the story of a relationship, especially those as dysfunctional as the ones represented in this film. also of note is the way he advances time. without notice there will be a one year gap between scenes. it's always linear, and it's usually pretty easy to pickup, so i enjoyed the effective storytelling on that front. other than that, nichols captures the ugliness of the relationships well. i guess it was a good film because it made me think and nichols' craft is well-honed here, but the story and characters were so ugly that the film was less enjoyable. B-.

Squid And The Whale - very fine film that's part wes anderson and part woody allen. it's well-written, extremely well-balanced, and has a very solid cast. a sleeper hit. nice to see it get a screenplay nomination.
i liked the realistic portrayal of separation - the way the parents use the children as pawns, the way the kids take sides, the relative nature of "good guy" and "bad guy," etc. also impressive was the realistic treatment of other relationships depicted in the film. ann paquin's inappropriate relationship with daniels and the older son, is a prime example. it's too frequent that a film depicts sexual relationships like this in a melodramatic, overblown, or romanticized way. the squid and the whale, though, treats these relationships with the requisite complexity and depth.
perhaps my favorite element of the film was its balance. it shifted between comedy and drama so effortlessly, and did both so well that it was quite a joy to watch. worthwhile. B+.

King Kong - jessica lange is still the hottest of the three damsels in distress, though naomi watts gives her a run for her money. anyway...i like peter jackson, i've only missed one of his films (the frighteners) so i think i've got a pretty good grasp on his work. while characterization isn't one of his strong suits i think he does do a good job of telling a well-balanced story. as expected, jack black is the major source of comic relief in this one. as his character turns, though, this balance is mostly lost. unfortunately, once that happens the film begins to drag a bit. the lengthy rampage scene at the end certainly doesn't help. as an aside, notice the very beginning of dead alive and its clearly being influenced by king kong - hadn't noticed it until watching king kong, but it's there. at any rate, the film is well done popcorn fare. it's a step down from the solidly built lotr trilogy, but it's still got the jackson touch - it's watchable, mostly well-balanced and occasionally dark. good stuff. B.

Wal-mart: The High Cost Of Low Prices - it's worth watching in spite of its many flaws. the production values are sometimes fairly amateurish, but this is forgivable because it adds to the grassroots feel of the documentary. what isn't forgivable, though, is the manipulation of facts and emotions that greenwald employs. the facts are generally solid, but, like most people, he will mold the facts to buttress his claims. this is expected, but i tend to hold leftist causes to a higher standard of intellectual honesty than the likes of fox news, rush limbaugh, etc. that said, the biggest disappointment of the documentary is the way it employs anti-chinese sentiments, religion and fear to make its case. each of these three has a sizable segment of the documentary which capitalizes on the viewers' potential fears/morals in these categories. none of these segments is fully without merit, but each segment made me cringe a bit at some point.
the segment on china was good because it addressed the real problem of chinese workers being mistreated because of the demand wal-mart places on chinese suppliers. however, it also stunk a bit of anti-chinese rhetoric. one might point out that this was predominately espoused by everyday americans in interview footage, but greenwald, through editing, is the one responsible for bringing the ideas to the film. that is, this is not simply a fly-on-the-wall documentary - it's a filmed essay much in the way michael moore made his last two films.
to me, the religion segment, though well-intentioned, smacked of contrivance. it just seemed like greenwald was trying so hard throughout the film to appeal to a new audience. early in the film when greenwald establishes his thesis, he uses interviews with small town folk who are affected by the arrival of wal-mart. during these sequences greenwald makes it a point to highlight the bush 2004 stickers on the wall and the american flag flying in front of the store and the picture of ronald reagan in the office...with the religious segment of the film, greenwald's pandering to a new audience reaches the absurd. people in inglewood talk about fighting wal-mart because it's the christian thing to do and greenwald intercuts footage of a priest talking about the lust for money being the root of all evil, etc.
another segment of the film focused on the many crimes that have taken place in wal-mart parking lots. greenwald asserts that wal-mart hasn't done enough to protect their customers once they leave the store, in spite of over-whelming evidence that a single security guard in a golf cart can reduce crime to near zero.
with all of the the above segments i felt that greenwald was stretching, either to appeal to a new audience or to appeal to a more base side of humanity. while this may be effective, i think the method (means) is more important than the outcome (ends). i also felt that some of these arguments are tantamount to telling teenagers to stay away from drugs so that they don't support al-qaeda. while it may hold some truth, and it may get the job done (keep them off drugs) it's sorta dishonest in some cases, and distracts from the real issues in others. that said, there is a good amount of time spent on the real issues: worker's rights, gender/racial equality, disposition of small businesses, government subsidies, etc. wal-mart is fucking evil and this documentary is inclusive and deep enough to expose this well-known fact. i certainly had a couple problems with the picture, but overall it's pretty good and definitely worth checking out because it's educational. B.

Knots - john stamos and the sometimes witty writing were the best parts of this comic drama about relationships. i never thought john stamos would be the best part of a movie, but i guess that's not that hard when the movie isn't all that good. the plot revolves around two couples going through some tough times mostly because of a femme fatale type of character who entices one member of each couple to cheat. i found her to be reprehensible and not entertaining, and i found the cheaters to be even more reprehensible. while it was slightly funny to watch all the characters squirm and fight, it wasn't funny enough because the film tried to be dramatic as well. the ending, in which one of the characters reveals she is pregnant, was a complete throw away. tara reid, who plays the good girl girlfriend of stamos is completely worthless. she was great in big lebowski because she played a dumb slut, which isn't far off from her everyday self. it's a smarter and more realistically drawn film than one might expect, but it wasn't at all special. C-.

Jarhead - next to film noir i think that war and prison films are the most consistently compelling for me; and jarhead is no exception. sam mendes (american beauty) directs and roger deakins (fargo, shawshank redemption lends his (considerable) talent behind the camera. in fact, this film is almost more deakins's than it is mendes's. deakins is about as perfect a choice as you can get for this sort of film - his cinematography suffocates the viewer as the desert and oil fires suffocate the subjects within the film. his other credits are full of similarly themed films: 1984, fargo, shawshank redemption, dead man walking, siege, hurricane, village, and the house of sand and fog top the list. all of these films have themes of isolation and confinement.
jarhead isn't just a film about isolation, it's a film about growth and complexity; namely the growth and complexity of the protagonist, played by jake gyllenhaal. jarhead refers, essentially, to the idea that each new marine is an empty vessel waiting to be filled by (presumably) the indoctrination of the marine core. one aspect of the film that fell a bit short is related to this filling... in full metal jacket, the ultimate film about the marine core, there is a clear dialectic between the recruits and the sergeant. in this film, this binary opposition is less prevalent. foxx, who plays the staff sergeant, is more "one of the guys" than a hard nosed leader. the conflict, therefore, is more an internal one. sometimes this manifests itself with intersquad squabbling and other times it's a man vs. himself situation. and even when the former is the case, it usually informs the latter. for example, when one of the other marines discovers one of his video tapes contains pornographic footage of his wife cheating on him, there is a minor squabble between sarsgaard and gyllenhaal (who wants to view the tape again). the real issue here isn't their disagreement on whether to view the tape again or not, rather it is gyllenhaal's own growing obsession with the possibility that his girlfriend is cheating on him. the first gulf war is the perfect setting for meting out this theme. because the only real significant american casualties came from "friendly fire" and the gulf war syndrome afterwards, it is a war that perfectly embodies the "man vs. himself" theme.
gyllenhaal does a very good job and will probably earn a golden globe or oscar nomination for his performance. sarsgaard is also dialed in very well. black (sling blade, friday night lights) is another up and comer. foxx does a good job, but i wasn't really sure how to read his character. was that his acting, my interpretation or the writing? perhaps the best thing about the characterization was its complexity. gyllenhaal isn't particularly easy to like. he's capable and occasionally sensitive, but he can also be stupid, callous, abrasive, and irresponsible. in the end, we like him because he perseveres through it all. sarsgaard and gyllenhaal clap and applaud the beach storming sequence in apocalypse now, which is chilling, sad and pathetic. but they also have empathy when they see actual death later in the film. conversely, evan jones' character (fowler) carries that same bravado throughout real and fictional war situations. as evan jones is one end of the spectrum and gyllenhaal and sarsgaard are the middle, brian geraghty (fergus) makes up the other end of the spectrum - he is the most sensitive of the group.
there were some stunning scenes in the film - the sequence with "something" by nirvana was a standout; the oil fires in the desert were great; gyllenhaal breaking, and then apologizing, was great; and the post-airstrike scenes were also memorable. all in all, it's a very good film that's a strange combination of the lyricism of "a walk in the sun" and the brutality of "full metal jacket," though it's not as good as either. i felt that sarsgaard's death at the end was more obligatory than it was symbolic or poetic. not as good as north country, better than the island, but not as enjoyable. the tight, efficient storytelling made it feel more epic than the run time would indicate. B+.

Good Night, And Good Luck - it's a respectable film, but it's very slow and doesn't do much in the character development department. it's style is very much in the cinema verite school - only diegetic music, shaky handhelds, out of focus shots, etc. it focuses almost entirely on the business end of murrow and his boys, and that detracts from the film. there is a throw-in attempt at incorporating some more personal elements, but it just seems superfluous and it surrounds two relatively minor characters. the lead was good, but not amazing. the dry, deadpan sense of humor didn't do much for me. i think this will get some nominations, but no wins. i really don't think it deserves that much praise. i think it has a certain appeal because it recalls a better time and because the subject matter (a culture of fear among dissenters) is relevant today. C.

Bomb The System - surprisingly good picture about a tagger in nyc who is grappling with his past, present and future. past because of the death of his older brother/father figure who was also a tagger. present because he's at a crossroads in his life - being an artist, possibly going to college, a new girlfriend, and peer pressure to wage war on the system. webber (storytelling, boiler room, etc.) does a good job when he needs to and is good enough throughout. jaclyn desantis has a great turn in a supporting role as an admirer of webber's work and a political activist in her own way. she's good looking, well-spoken and strong in her limited screen time. it's actually with her appearance that the film turns from mediocre to quite good.
the soundtrack is another highlight. done mostly by el-p (though there's one radiohead tune that almost steals the show), it fits perfectly with the themes and scenery. it's not as overtly political as the title implies, and i think that turns out to be a good thing. by keeping the politics and reasons behind bombing (tagging, writing graffiti, whatever) less than clear, the film is able to skirt that iffy subject a bit. if it were overtly political or if it laid out a single, clear-cut reason for bombing, then i think it would have detracted from the film because those aspects would likely be half-baked, incomplete, or (even worse) juvenile.
the film isn't just a film about graffiti or graffiti culture, it's sort of a coming of age film and a film about love and artistic expression and plenty of other things. above all, it's engaging and worthwhile. B.

Melinda And Melinda - woody allen poses a fundamental, and very interesting, question with this picture: is life drama or comedy? is it just a matter of interpretation? he sets the scene with a group of people talking over dinner (my dinner with andre's wallace shawn makes an apt appearance in these scenes) about this very question. one of the people at the table lays down some basic plot points (which allen skips over) in a story and asks his friends to judge whether it's a comedy or a drama. shawn and his counterpart each tell the story in their vision - one comic and one dramatic - while keeping the basic plot the same. the rest of the film is allen's postmodern exercise.
the real problem with the picture is in the execution. the idea is great, but allen just doesn't do a great job with either storyline. the dramatic version isn't all that poignant and the comic version isn't all that comic. it's interesting to see how he changes minor things in each instance and it's interesting to see him flexing his storytelling muscles, but it just doesn't work that well. it would have been better realized if two directors had done the two versions and then allen cut them together. i think that this was the picture which prompted chloe sevigny to say that working with allen was underwhelming. while i'm not a huge woody allen fan, i can say that reading sevigny say that made me a bit defensive on his behalf - who the hell is she to slight one of the most singular filmmakers of the last 50 years? that said, beyond the concept, this picture didn't really do it for me. C+.

Saw II - does essentially the same thing that the first one did, but not as well. both films exhibited a fairly impressive use of red herrings. more to the point - both films distract you by intentionally placing plot holes which make you think that you are more intelligent than the film. fittingly, this is exactly what the protagonist in this film is going through.
donnie wahlberg (a poor man's mark wahlberg) is the protagonist - a cop who catches the jigsaw killer, but not before he sets into motion one more diabolical scheme of which wahlberg is a victim. his partner, who has studied the work of the jigsaw murderer, acts as the voice of reason while wahlberg plays the out of control cop with old school methods. all this is worsened by the fact that his son is another victim of the jigsaw murderer's latest scheme.
like the first one, it was occasionally over-directed. i'm not a huge fan of the rapid cuts accompanied by sound effects and crunching guitars. more than anything it comes off as a contrivance. that said, there is a gritty feel to the direction which works well with the material. perhaps the best part of the film, outside of the story, are the great set pieces. the various contraptions and puzzles that they come up with in the film are not only diabolically clever and evil, but also intellectually interesting. this is one reason why these films work so well - they appeal to both sides of the brain at the same time. you're scared and freaked out, but you're also thinking about how you would get out of the situation. this carries over to the very premise of the entire film - a terminally ill man setting up situations which force you to choose life or death. like tyler durden, the jigsaw killer makes you face death in order to make you appreciate life. while his ability to envision and carry out these schemes is scary, you also sorta appreciate what he is trying to do. like ghost dog the jigsaw killer feels that facing one's own mortality is an integral part of living life to the fullest; and i agree.
there are certainly some weaknesses to the film. i'm sure that upon careful inspection i would find some plot holes. i didn't especially care for some of the direction, dialogue and acting. but most of this is forgivable because the set pieces are creative, the story is good and the underlying philosophy is intriguing. B-.

North Country - powerful oscar contender that delivers. generally i'm turned off by pictures like this because they come off as entirely constructed to please the academy. it's a story of the underdog with several oscar winners/nominees and an up and coming director. judging by the producers, though, this seems more like a case of a group of people believing in the story.
essentially the film is a cross between norma rae and erin brokovich, and i think it's as good as both. as is usual, it all starts with the screenplay which is excellent from top to bottom. the dialogue, the settings, the storytelling, the characterization - all are just where they need to be. the settings echo and amplify the feelings of the characters. the characters are realistically drawn in that they have both positive and negative attributes. the storytelling is efficient and well-paced. caro's direction enhances the mood well. shots of the mine are either claustrophobic and dungy (when indoors) or agoraphobic and snow white (when outdoors). caro uses the exteriors in a similar way to the coens in fargo - to show the isolation and hopelessness of the characters. the court room sequences are shot with saturated sepia tones reminiscent more of documentary footage than a hollywood film. though the acting was quite good i think that the cinch here is in the screenplay which should get nominated for best adapted screenplay.
theron is very good, but mcdormand almost steals the show with one chilling stare that comes while she's in the courtroom. spacek, bean, harrelson and the rest are also solid. richard jenkins, who plays a lot of humorous roles, does a great job with a difficult role as theron's father. like many of the men at the mine jenkins is an enabler because he doesn't speak out against the abuse and harassment that takes place. spacek (jenkin's wife) is an enabler of another kind - by being the supportive wife she allows jenkins' views on women in (and out of) the mill to go unquestioned. it's only when she takes action that he steps up to support his daughter's fight. all these dynamics reinforce the theme that we're all in this together; a theme that was so powerfully represented in norma rae.
the film is definitely better than caro's other major picture - whale rider. while i like the island more in certain ways i think it's safe to say that this is the best film released this year that i've seen. B+.

Monster - a comedy from roberto benigni that is nothing short of brilliant. the laughs aren't as hearty as they were when i watched meet the parents or the 40 year old virgin the first time, and i can't tell yet if the laughs will have as much life as they have in my favorite comedy of all-time (planes, trains and automobiles); but the laughs in monster are good and plentiful. the humor is decidedly european, but really should translate to american audiences without trouble. on a related note - the film is in italian, but the audio is recorded in post-production so it looks dubbed (a look i've always disliked, but i understand the economics of the decision). that said, don't be tempted to watch the film with the english audio track - it looks even worse and the translation is shoddy. stick with the italian with subtitles.
the premise finds benigni as a hapless, unemployed man who is (wrongly) suspected of being the infamous "monster" - a rapist/murderer who is on the loose throughout italy. the comedy is mostly absurdist stuff, but a lot of it is relatively heady in its execution. there's a lot of setup that goes into the execution of some of the gags, and, in some cases there are gags which pay bigger dividends later in the film. in this regard, the construction of the film reminded me of meet the parents because both films were clearly written and re-written several times. it's only with several re-writes that a film acquires this level of depth and efficiency. much of the film's humor derives from cases of mistaken identity, changes of perspective, and benigni's unique path through life.
nicoletta braschi, who is married to benigni and starred across him in life is beautiful, is great in this film as well. she's sexy (which is required because of the film's far-fetched premise), funny, and complements benigni amazingly well. she plays an undercover cop who is charged with the task of luring benigni into showing his "true" self, thus providing the proof the police need to incarcerate him. as the film progresses we see braschi and benigni form a playful and fun relationship which adds a depth to the picture without bogging it down with trite sentimentality. add to this the fact that it pokes plenty of fun at shrinks and cops and you have a brilliantly drawn and realized comedy that should leave you wanting more. B+.

Domino - i don't know that i've ever used the word "mess" to describe a film, but that's exactly what this film is - a mess. tony scott certainly isn't short of ambition on this one - he tries to make a heist/action film with equal amounts of comedy, love, and mysticism mixed in. unfortunately it turns out to just be one giant, sprawling mess without much bite.
in man on fire scott tried to carve out a new style for himself. it was gritty and ambitious and it (mostly) worked because the other elements of the film (namely the writing and acting) were in place. here, though, he tries to repeat the style, but with writing that is (at times) piss poor and acting which is often out of place. my grandfather always said that the screenplay was the cornerstone of a good film and it's easy to agree with that. without a well-drawn set of characters, an engaging plot, and a modicum of cohesiveness you have a film like this - a complete mess. there's a lot of writing here that is downright silly - some bad dialogue and some bad plot choices. in man on fire, scott benefited from a screenplay that understood the importance of establishing character. this film, on the other hand, jumps right into the action at the expense of character development. often it seemed as though scott was trying to tell the story with pure pastiche. he edits the crap out of this film and it often detracts from the most fundamental element of filmmaking - the storytelling. sure, it adds a vibrancy to the film and it makes for a unique style, but it comes at the cost of the story. sometimes less is more.
this idea is carried over into the acting as well. while it's not as expressionistic as the directorial style, it is certainly not where it needs to be. i think that, to a varying degree, this is a weakness in all of scott's films. it can certainly be said that much of the acting in films like top gun, crimson tide, true romance, and man on fire is a bit on the heavy side. domino is no exception to this trend. knightley is certainly the worst offender here. i think that part of it is definitely in the props scott gives her - in about 80% of the shots she's in for any length of time there's either chewing gum or a cigarette in her mouth. it's just such an easy prop to establish toughness that it had the opposite effect for me. he gives rourke a cigarette in several scenes as well, but rourke brings with him a bit more cred than knightley and his face is more befitting of a tough guy bounty hunter than knightley's. scott also gives knightley a pair of numchucks which she brandishes throughout the film. the reason that thurman was so brilliant and convincing in kill bill is that tarantino made it perfectly clear that she'd have to work in a gym for a full year to get into kung fu shape. she put in that work and was completely believable when she was handling weapons and throwing punches. knightley, on the other hand, is not believable in her role here.
scott's use of music is very integrated into the editing and flow of the picture. in a way it's the best part of the film because it matches the flow of the picture well. he uses two pieces that scorsese used in the casino - one an oldie and one an opera piece. for the most part, though, he uses hip-hop and electronic stuff that ranges from bad to pretty decent.
the ending is a poor rehash of the finale in true romance. in true romance he sets the scene much more thoroughly and shoots it in a more traditional (read: more logical and visible) fashion. filming action sequences with shaky handhelds and quick cutting has become an epidemic over the last 10 years or so. i don't really understand the appeal of such a style. the bourne supremacy is the first film that comes to mind when i think of a film which lost some of its impact because of the way the action sequences were cut and filmed. i think it's generally less of a stylistic decision and more a matter of not knowing how to film a good action sequence, so what you get is a director trying to cover it up with fast cutting and shaky handhelds. as an aside, one of the early shoot-outs takes place between the bounty hunters and the 18th street gang which is an actual gang in los angeles. when i was going to high school they were famous for feuding with sotel 13.
all in all i don't think it's been a good year for the scott brothers. ridley did kingdom of heaven and tony did this. there's a good film somewhere in this story, but it's buried underneath the bad writing and poor direction. kingdom of heaven was 145 minutes long and felt like it was 180+, domino was 120 minutes long and also felt like it was about 180. i'm not sure which scott brother made the worse film this year, so i'll just call it a tie. D.

History Of Violence - i've never been much of a cronenberg fan and this film didn't do much to help his case with me. some of his early stuff i find somewhat entertaining and intriguing, but a few of his post-1990 films have been truly awful. he seems fascinated by the relationship between sex and violence and that doesn't interest me at all.
the film starts off with a long, uncut shot that tracks two criminals who end up being the catalyst for the film's major conflicts. this scene may have been the most interesting in the film because it held the potential for many things: it could have been funny, shocking, artistic, etc. there's an uncomfortable silence in these opening minutes that could have been used in so many ways. it turns out that the characters are career criminals on a cross-country murder spree, but cronenberg leaves all of this very open. after the initial introduction to these characters who appear only one more time in the film's most pivotal scene, we are introduced to viggo mortensen's family. cronenberg presents the family in a very shallow and two-dimensional way. the sense one gets is that either he is setting the scene for a stark contrast post-violent act (which we've all seen in the previews by now), or he has an utter lack of talent when it comes to portraying a decent family with sincerity and subtlety. i gave him the benefit of the doubt, but wasn't rewarded. about 90% of the viewers around me did not give him the benefit of the doubt and had therefore become disengaged early on. in other words, for them the film was as good as sunk a mere 10 minutes in.
portrayals of the family and the town life are very cliché and simplistic. the young daughter has a nightmare and the entire family comes to her side to insure her that everything is okay. the teenage boy's high school troubles are drawn in an equally simple manner - the bully is wooden and not realistically drawn. it's a small town and everyone gets along, it's the kind of thing you've seen in a million films, but here it seems as though cronenberg isn't even trying to add character to his characters and settings. i assumed that this was all going to be for effect and, to a certain extent, i was right.
after mortensen kills the two criminals in a justifiable act of self-defense and heroism ed harris comes from the past to settle an old score. mortensen feigns ignorance, but we all know the truth - mortensen has a shady past. what's most interesting about the story (which is based upon a graphic novel) is the way violence affects people and relationships. it's quite interesting to see mortensen's character change from a simple and nice to multi-faceted, dark and complex. sadly, cronenberg loses much of his audience in trying to establish mortensen as joe average early in the film. the characters and their relationships are drawn too simply and, conversely, the post-violence characters/relationships are too dark and complex. maria bello (who plays mortensen's wife) and mortensen change too much and neither is very sympathetic by film's end.
perhaps the best way to view the film is the way i did in retrospect: the film is a parable. these characters aren't supposed to breathe like they do in good dramas, they're supposed to be symbols for things in society. it's more a commentary on the role of violence in society than a portrait of a family forced to deal with the shady past of its patriarch. when viewed like this you don't have to think about the difficult elements of filmmaking like subtlety and character development. therefore, as a story it's quite good. but as a film, a few shots aside, it's less than stellar. C-.

Adventures Of Baron Munchausen - i don't know for sure, but i'd be willing to guess that andrew sarris is a fan of terry gilliam's. sarris is a leading writer in the field of cinema as an auteur movement, and as such he likes to see a director with a unique, identifiable and singular vision. gilliam certainly has that. brazil, 12 monkeys, adventures of baron munchausen and fear & loathing in las vegas all have similar themes and a unique visual style. he makes films about a rugged individual who is on the fringe of society. normally, though, this character (or group of characters - time bandits, and baron munchausen to an extent) is not a mcqueen type of outkast. normally these characters are on the fringe because of both an ideological difference and a slight insanity. hunter thompson is the perfect example of a gilliam character, but really all his characters (fictional or real) are like this. of course this makes gilliam the perfect candidate for the filmed adaptation of don quixote. my impression of gilliam in "lost in la mancha" is that he is a similar character himself. i get the impression that he's a producer's worst nightmare in many respects. he's gifted enough to want to fund, but enough of a disaster to make you hesitate. he's visionary, but not altogether realistic or practical.
but back to sarris - his primary shortcoming is that he gives too much credit to directors who have a singular vision and too little credit to directors like kubrick, wilder and wyler who don't seem to have unifying cinematic point of view/style. in gilliam's case it would be easy to give him a great deal of credit because he's carved out a unique style of his own. it's recognizable and imaginative. that said, he, in my opinion, has yet to make a masterpiece. he has a few good films, but nothing that is great. fear & loathing is the closest of his films, in my opinion. his set pieces are great, his humor is good (though not my taste), and he weaves a tapestry rather well. i certainly respect his body of work and his style, but it's not something that is particularly in line with my tastes. B-.

Dark Victory - the only other picture i've seen by goulding is nightmare alley and it had a similar emotional arc. they both start off interestingly enough only to become disarmingly prosaic, overly sentimental, and/or seemingly predictable; but, in the end, both are shockingly resonant. i'm not sure if this is a stroke of pure luck or if goulding has an uncanny (and unconventional) ability to disarm the audience's preconceptions only to turn them right on top of the audience later on. that is, goulding somehow brings your guard down in each instance by allowing you to think you know where the film is going and what you're going to feel in the end. i found myself very struck by the emotional power of the film's ending in spite of my earlier detachment from the emotional center of the film.
bette davis and george brent are quite good in the leading roles. i really don't see actresses of the same caliber as davis, stanwyck, bacall, k. hepburn, bergman, crawford, etc. these days. you could say meryl streep or glen close, some might throw in names like renee zellweger or nicole kidman, but contemporary great actresses aren't as great and aren't as many. it's odd, but it seems that women were getting better roles 40-70 years ago. bogart was so-so as an irish stable hand. his accent was poor and his character wasn't very well drawn. it was still an early role for him. the woman who played ann also did only a so-so job.
overall not the strongest film, but two performances and a great ending made it worth while. B+.

Sideways - one of the better films of 2004 because of its strong characterization and balance of comedy and drama. one telling characterization was what giamatti titled his book: the day after yesterday. when madsen hears this she says "you mean today." and giamatti reluctantly says "yeah." this is a crucial moment because he views everything in the context of its relation to the past and she has a more immediate world view, a more healthy one as well. in this same conversation they have a thinly veiled conversation about wine and what it means to each - he likes pinot because it's a thin-skinned grape which requires constant care and just the right conditions to thrive. she likes wine because it's a time capsule, but a living one. it's an artistic capturing of a time - the laborers, the weather, the grapes, the tastes of the time, etc., but it evolves with time and eventually peaks, like giamatti's 1961 bottle of wine. again their differences become clear over this - giamatti says he's waiting for the right occasion to open the bottle and madsen says that opening the bottle is the occasion. her philosophy is one of seizing life and his is one of waiting for it to come to him. in the end, he reverses this trend.
the dynamic between giamatti and church is reminiscent of planes trains and automobiles; and both are very good in their roles. it's smartly written, but never pompous. the characters are well drawn and well-acted, but never above the audience. one telling moment is when they're watching a highfalutin lecture on the wine making process and sandra oh turns to madsen and rolls her eyes and give a tired look. the four of them then proceed to the back room where oh and church make out and madsen and giamatti get to know each other better. they're children, all of them, but they're grown. they're all flawed, but they remain likable. A-.

Red Eye - the short, non-spoiler version is this: it's pretty good, check it out.
i was once told that it's a fact that horror films do better in times of war. my source on this isn't rock solid, but it makes enough sense so there it is. here is a horror/thriller that, like many horror films (invasion of the body snatchers, etc.), immerses its thrills in a cultural context. the plot follows a young hotel manager (mcadams) on her way back home after going to her grandmother's funeral. in the airport she meets charming cilliam murphy and they exchange niceties. after flight delays they board and find themselves sitting next to each other again. after the flight takes off murphy turns from mr. charming to airborne nightmare. he explains to her that her father (a dark-haired brian cox) will die if she doesn't remotely arrange for the director of homeland security (who is staying at her hotel) to be moved to another room. craven fills in some of the backstory with shots of a television broadcast introducing the director of h.s., and he comes off as a pupil of the school of real politick; in other words, his approach to security is to rule with an iron fist. when confronted with this ultimatum mcadams tells murphy she knows the director to be a kind, good man and that murphy shouldn't aid in his assassination. another subplot is that mcadams has trust issues because of a previous rape. in fact the best part of the film is when she tells murphy that the one thing she has been trying to convince herself of since it happened is that she'll never let it happen again. these elements (her rape, the target being the director of homeland security, and the setting - an airplane) all clearly make this a topical thriller.
what had me guessing, though, is what craven is trying to say with this piece. i don't think he is merely placing a thriller in a modern cultural context, i think he is trying to make a political statement. 1) mcadams says she'll never let herself be victimized again and she attacks her attacker. 2) mcadams stands up for the director of homeland security, saying he's a great guy, yet we know him to be Machiavellian. 3) in the end everyone survives and the good guys win, no sacrifice was necessary. craven invokes the memory of 9/11 and seems to fall in line with the administration, but leaves no martyr to strengthen the cause. why? he does, however, allow the actual assassins to escape. does he do this to reinforce the idea that the enemy is still out there? if so, this seems, again, to fall in line with the philosophy of the bush administration which uses fear as a device for control. i don't think craven is a republican, but the film does come off as slightly republican.
i enjoyed the thriller aspect of the film; it kept me interested and entertained throughout. i don't know how most will view the film, but i actually wanted the director of homeland security to be assassinated. not so much because i wanted to see mcadams fail in her quest, but more because i wanted to see murphy succeed in his. that and i didn't care at all for the director of homeland security.
interestingly, craven films mcadams at 3/4 (possibly indicating she has something to hide) through most of the first part of the film, whereas he films murphy head on and 3/4. it's interesting because it felt like it should have been the other way around. murphy, after all, was the one with something to hide. true, mcadams was hiding her past, but murphy was hiding the fact that he works for assassins - a somewhat larger secret. anyway, it's a minor point.
the very end was a complete throwaway, though you might be able to make some stretch of an argument that it was mcadams aligning herself with the proletariat and thus making her character less a symbol of a tool of the bush administration, and more a symbol of jane average making good. then again i could be reading FAR too much into this film. it made me think and it's fun enough to watch so... B-.

White Men Can't Jump - this came out when i was in jr. high and i remember being kinda pissed off by the title. in jr. high and high school i was a minority so seeing a popular movie title which belittles my race made me mad. i'm not saying that i suffered all that much as a result or that this is comparable to the plight of native americans or asians or blacks or middle easterners, but it still wasn't fun. i guarantee that people at my school would have raised hell if a film entitled "black people can't read/swim/fill-in-the-blank" did as well as this one did ($76 million at a time when that meant something, especially for a comedy). here's the thing though - it's a good film with a racial outlook vastly more complex than its title; and this is the nature of hollywood. often they'll take a film like this and market it as an urban comedy or they'll play up the action aspects of a film or...marketing isn't about giving an accurate portrayal of the film's themes or conflicts, rather it's about filling seats. but you know all this.
what you may not know is that "white men can't jump" could be the subject of a master's thesis on race and gender. it presents a vastly complex matrix of relations, mores and roles that belie its title. it has the potential, with the right viewer, to be as thoughtful as spike lee's jungle fever; and a hell of a lot more entertaining. this isn't to slight jungle fever, which is a fantastic film with a great stevie wonder soundtrack and a great performance from samuel jackson. rather, it's a compliment to white men can't jump.
harrelson plays snipes and others like malcolm x played whites - he knows they'll judge him by his appearance and he uses that to hustle them. harrelson and his puerto-rican girlfriend (rosie perez, in a career role) are the unemployed ones in financial trouble. snipes, meanwhile, has several jobs and his wife stays at home. he's saving to buy a house, harrelson and perez are saving to pay off mobsters. mobsters who, by the way, are complete fakes. after they get their money they pose harrelson on a mattress to look as if he's been killed while they take a polaroid, so that they can earn respect back home. there's the obvious point that harrelson and snipes need each other to hustle other players. a cynic would point out that the races only get along in order make money, but that would discount the amicable ending between harrelson and snipes; it would also neglect the relationship of harrelson and perez which, by film's end, looks to be back on the upswing.
there are still stereotypes in the film, but they're made fun of and generally overcome by the end of the film. harrelson is goofy, feckless with money and unable to dunk. by the end of the film those have either been ameliorated or eliminated. snipes is a braggart and showboat without compassion for anyone outside of himself, or, at best, anyone outside of his race. by the end of the film he's toned down and found some heart, but not in too mushy a way. perez makes good and goes on jeopardy and kicks some ass. she also does the right thing by putting her foot down with regards to harrelson and his gambling problems. throughout it all the film retains a great sense of humor (the opening sequence has great trash talking, the jimi hendrix conversation is great, snipes schooling harrelson ["listen to the woman"] at the end is priceless, etc.). A-.

Papillion - a remarkable prison film starring mcqueen and hoffman; goldsmith does the score and schaffner directs. with the exception of koyaanisqatsi every one of my favorite films has great characters. characters are more important than any other element of a film for me. for a film to be successful it has to have characters who are interesting, multi-faceted and compelling. this film oozes characters, beginning with mcqueen and hoffman. both turn in absolutely great performances here. it's not hoffman's best performance ever (midnight cowboy and the graduate probably tie for that honor), but it's high on the list of many great performances. this is probably mcqueen's best performance, though i haven't seen the sand pebbles (which is usually labeled his best).
it's a film the reminds me of "i am a fugitive from a chain gang" and "shawshank redemption." it takes place primarily inside of a french prison in the Caribbean and focuses on mcqueen's (who is wrongly jailed) struggle to gain freedom. in this way it's like many prison films. i really like films about prison and war. to me they feature the best and worst of humanity, the extremes of humanity and they do so in the most base circumstances. they strip away everything and reveal people for who they are. this film does that about as well as any other i can think of right now.
i saw schaffner's "patton" some years ago and don't remember much about it, but watching this film makes me think i need to revisit that one. schaffner's direction is exactly where it needs to be. they talk about drummers playing "in the pocket" and i think that that term could apply to schaffner's direction here. it doesn't mean that he has a lack of artistic flourish, rather it means that when those flourishes arise, they are perfectly timed and executed. schaffner's direction is always rooted in keeping the viewer engaged. he gives visual cues before something happens, he visually echoes the emotions of the characters and of the audience; and, at the same time, he doesn't bludgeon you. he shows you the edge of the cliff, but he doesn't push you over, as some are want to do.
i like direction that uses the medium of film in a creative way. most films are cut and covered in a fairly conservative, prosaic and typical fashion. they're cut and filmed in a way that is meant to be easy to read and leave as much to the acting and plot as possible. the same can be said for most scores - they're there enough to know they're there, but not to actually say anything. schaffner's direction and goldsmith's score, however are present. they make themselves known and it's never a bad thing. directors are often afraid of suffocating a film with their style, and sometimes rightfully so (because a lot of directors suck). schaffner, though, directed Papillion with confidence and style. he's never overbearing and his direction never asserts itself too much. likewise, goldsmith's score is present and assertive, but never overbearing or at all prone to detracting from the essential focus at the time (advancing the plot, establishing a character, etc.). B+.
"blame is for god and small children"

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - in my opinion every single work of tim burton's is overrated, with the possible exception of planet of the apes, which generally got the panning it deserved. that's not to say his stuff isn't good - nightmare before christmas is good, batman is good, ed wood is good, pee-wee's big adventure is very good, but i don't think any of them are as good as public seems to think they are. it's interesting that this film is titled "charlie and the chocolate factory" and the original is titled "willy wonka and the chocolate factory." interesting because the former focuses much more heavily on charlie and this one much more heavily on willy wonka. let me get this part out of the way - the original is way better, this one shouldn't have been made, johnny depp is no gene wilder, the songs in this one didn't compare, visually it wasn't as good, it didn't flow as well, etc.
depp played wonka much weirder than wilder. i haven't read the book in twenty years so i don't remember what he was like in the book, but it's a moot point anyway. depp vs. wilder, it's no contest - wilder was more likable, more funny, more sinister, more dynamic, more interesting and more entertaining. wilder is a better actor and the character he created for wonka was just better, no contest. as a quick aside - there were all these really obnoxious little girls in the back of the theater who laughed at about 90% of the lines (funny or not) in the film. the most funny line in the entire film went something like this: wonka was describing why he setup the contest. he was getting his hair cut when he discovered a single silver hair. he held it to the light and said that that's when he realized he needed an heir. so he set out to find one through the golden ticket contest. i laughed and the entire theater was silent. wtf? ...hair/heir, i thought it was a good one. that was the best part of the movie. anyway, back to depp. he played wonka as an almost sassy social outcast. the social outcast part was fine, i think wilder's portrayal as an eccentric was better, but...anyway, the sassy part was odd. it really catered to the young female population, apparently.
visually the picture was intriguing. the stark, bluish-white exterior contrasted well with the colorful interior of the factory. this is something that burton does consistently well. however, i still feel that the original did a better job in this department. the colors were more vibrant throughout the film. whereas the remake lost some of it's vibrancy in some of the scenes.
the oompaloompas in the original were cool looking. in this one it was just one oompaloompa copied over and over again. it was retarded. i don't understand the choice at all. in a related note, the special effects in this version were surprisingly opaque. the original didn't have many effects, but the ones it did have (mike teevee floating being teleported, violet turning into a blueberry, etc.) were well-executed and believable enough. in this version, though, they looked like effects; they just looked too digital.
the songs, a highlight in the original, seemed an after thought in this version. the lyrics are less memorable and the music less timeless.
i started this review thinking that the film was average. after writing this review i've realized just how utterly mediocre it is. i did laugh a few times. i liked the kid who played charlie (though he was lost because of depp's suffocating presence) and i liked the visuals, but, overall, the picture just has too much to measure up against. C.

Island - spoilers... this film embodies some of the definitive characteristics of a worthwhile hollywood film. many deride hollywood cinema as sweets for the masses - empty films without character, artistic merit or thoughtful plots. though i acknowledge the great deal of truth in this assessment, i think it's a bit simplistic and elitist. first, what's so wrong with film as pure entertainment? i enjoy decasia, koyaanisqatsi and un chien andalou as much as the next guy, but i also feel the need for a balance in my cinema; that's where hollywood films find their worth. secondly, there are some fine examples (die hard, kill bill, matrix, terminator, etc.) of hollywood pictures that rise above the stereotype and actually combine "low" entertainment with "high" art. the island is one of those pictures. i don't mean to group it in the same category as the aforementioned, but it's a solid film with plenty of fodder for those in the audience who choose to reflect. i'm also not saying that the message, or questions raised, are as refined, cohesive or synthesized as something like foucault's "discipline and punish," but we are talking about a multi-million dollar film, so i think the standards should be adjusted accordingly.
the island takes place 15 years in the future (a bit too soon, if you ask me) where cloning has been perfected and turned into big business. johansson and mcgregor play clones secluded from our world in a compound that ensures the clones are in good health in case the original humans need a donor organ or the like. clones are spawned at the same age as the original human and are mentally unsophisticated as a result. essentially the clones are treated as products and the compound acts as a farm. in order to keep the clones under control a metanarrative is constructed. the details are murky, but essentially it involves an apocalyptic contamination which prevents the clones from wanting to leave the compound. sex and love aren't taught to the clones, close personal contact is prohibited, and everyone is monitored at all times. when one of the clones leaves to provide their counterparts with an organ transplant the rest of the people in the compound are told that that person has won the lottery. when someone wins the lottery they supposedly go to an island free of contamination - it explains the person's disappearance and gives the clones something to hope for. think thx-1138 and you'll have an excellent idea of the atmosphere, both visually and psychologically. indeed, the entire film plays like a hybrid of thx-1138, the matrix, a clockwork orange and blade runner. one advantage is has over blade runner and thx-1138, though, is the presence of comic relief; that, and it's not directed by george lucas, which is generally a good thing. i digress...
let me use that slight of lucas as a segue to my opinion of bay. i haven't seen the bad boys films, but i have to admit that i enjoy the rock and armageddon for what they are. pearl harbor was syrupy and contrived. so, going into this picture, i wasn't too sure what to expect. i know he can make a good picture and i know he can make a bad picture. also, i generally i don't like johansson. she's a decent enough actress and has the ability to be good looking, but her "best roles" have either left me uninspired (lost in translation) or uninterested (girl with a pearl earring, horse whisperer, love song for bobby long). in other words, i didn't go into the picture with strong expectations in either direction.
philosophically it's not as ripe as the matrix, but it certainly is ready to be intellectually harvested. right to life issues, the existence of a soul, nature vs. nurture, the issue of identity, politically implications of cloning technology, the nature of memory, etc. it's the kind of film that you really should watch with someone. i liked that the island is initially portrayed as a desired location, like heaven. but as the film progresses the compound where the clones live turns out to be the true island; and in this sense it is an inversion of heaven and hell. the clones' compound is like the garden of eden with the head scientist as god. but it's inverted because god is evil and the clones are pure (remember, though they appear to be older, they're only 2-3 years old in most cases). what makes it even better is the message that curiosity (traditionally seen as sinful - pandora, "curiosity killed the cat," the garden of eden story, etc.) is something to be embraced - it ends up setting mcgregor and johansson free.
late in the film ewan mcgregor confronts his outside version and there's a standoff between the two of them and the person hired (played by Djimon Hounsou) to contain the mcgregor/johansson escape. ewan vs. ewan had me thinking about the nature of identity. each version competes to convince hounsou that he is the real version of mcgregor's character. we live in a world where the original has essentially lost its worth. every cd is equally important. with paintings we still value the original, but more and more we value the copy as much as the original because there isn't any practical difference between the two. will this trend continue to the point where a human clone has the same value as the original? if so, what's wrong with that? equal, but different? questions for the ages, but the interesting thing is that the film lends itself to these questions and interpretations - something many blockbusters don't do.
the minor stuff: the set design was quite good and the special effects were transparent. i didn't like the large number of product placements (from beer to cars to video game platforms to credit cards), but i guess that's what i meant when i said that this film embodies the definitive characteristics of a hollywood film.
when i watch a film i ask to be entertained, educated or otherwise moved on some level. when i watch a hollywood film i expect to be only entertained. occasionally a film like this comes along which has characters i can sympathize with (hounsou, mcgregor and johansson), an engaging plot, a message, the potential for intellectual readings, some comic relief (not completely reliant upon buscemi, by the way), and solid technical attributes. sure it's derivative at times and a little too long, but, from what i've seen, this is the best film of the year. B+.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession - "i know that i know nothing" - socrates.
watching this film, and seeing a sampling of the great diversity of films that the z channel brought to its subscribers, cements this idea as well as anything. not to be conceited or anything, but people sometimes tell me that i know a lot about film and that i should parlay that into some sort of career. i always shoot back with: "i really don't know that much about film." they think it's humility, but it's really a mark of how much i know about film: enough to know that i know nothing.
the Z channel was the first paid channel in the nation (1974), the first movie cable channel. it was only available in LA and, at its height, it had only 100,000 subscribers, but its impact on cable and film is immeasurable. i'm lucky enough to have a vague memory of its existence. my dad was a subscriber, he got the monthly programs and he still talks about the channel to this day. this documentary addresses the rise and fall of the z channel, its impact and its program director - jerry harvey.
by 1982 the z channel had 80K subscribers in LA while HBO and showtime, which were fighting to get a decent subscriber base, had only 14K and 7K respectively. the z channel offered an eclectic selection of programming - the artsy fartsy, the neglected, the trashy t&a pics, etc.; they had it all. their programming was unlike anything i know of today because it gave such a wide view of "film" as to include classic american films like midnight cowboy or chinatown, as well as foreign classics by bergman and bertolucci and kurosawa, as well as late nite fare such as the emmanuelle films, and lost films like "bad timing," and cult classics, and blockbusters like "the empire strikes back," and over-looked masterpieces, and directors' cuts of otherwise watered-down pictures like heaven's gate and once upon a time in america. in this way jerry harvey and his staff encapsulated just about everything that cinema has to offer.
the documentary pieces together interviews with all sorts of industry folk - film critics like f.x. feeney, filmmakers like tarantino, altman, zsigmond, jarmusch, etc., as well as friends and co-workers of jerry harvey. one of the assistant programmers was actually a ucla student who worked at videotheque (where jerry discovered him) - a video store in westwood which my dad and i used to visit somewhat frequently. the documentary also splices in segments of the films that the z channel showed.
watching quentin tarantino talk about the impact z channel had on him was pretty fun. actually, hearing him talk about film in general is fun. it's a lot like seeing magic johnson talk about basketball - they both have a childlike enthusiasm for their respective loves and it translates very clearly in the way they talk about them. of course it helps that each are so gifted and knowledgeable that you can ride their enthusiasm without second-guessing their interpretation of a given item. it's one thing to be enthusiastic about a film like fantastic four, it's another to be excited about a film like the good, the bad, and ugly and be able to discuss it in a very impassioned, yet informed way.
it's impossible to guage the impact that the z channel had. clearly it had an impact on my father, who has said that the z channel kept his love alive for the many years between college and true cable/vhs. naturally, that likely means it had a residual effect on me. beyond the everyday nobodies like my dad and i, the z channel helped garner james woods an academy award nomination for his role in salvador (at least according to him). the film, which was in and out of theaters very quickly, was rediscovered by z channel subscribers because harvey pushed for a critic to interview woods at the same time that the z channel magazine was putting salvador on the front page and replaying the picture on tv. this, woods says, was the impetus behind his nomination for a best actor award that year.
sadly, the z channel didn't last because hbo and show time had more money to throw around, jerry harvey died, and they chose to bring on sports in order to bolster revenue a bit...which turned out to be a bad business/artisitc decision. harvey, who battled depression throughout his life, killed his wife and himself in the mid-80s and the z channel folded within a year. directed by the daughter of john cassavetes. B+

Bad Boy Bubby - a really fun, offbeat, surprising picture. it's starts off as a very dark, very grim picture complete with incest, creepy sets, cat torture and the like. the story is about 35 year old bubby who has lived in his mother's dingy apartment his entire life. she's abusive and concocts a story that it's impossible to go outside the front door without a gas mask. clearly it's a fucked up set of circumstances for bubby. without going too much into the plot, bubby leaves the apartment and meets many colorful characters along the way. once he leaves the apartment the tone of the picture is much more on the humorous side. because bubby's life experience is so limited he often regurgitates things he's heard earlier in the film in response to a new experience. it makes for a funny effect and a possible commentary on the derivative nature of existence for all of us.
the film was a cult classic in norway and australia, but is basically unknown elsewhere. it's one of those films that has some potentially offensive elements and those elements are blown out of proportion and that kills small films like this. for people willing to give it a chance, though, i think it's a fairly rewarding picture. one of the more interesting technical elements of the film is the sound design which is completely relative to bubby. using binaural microphones placed on nicholas hope's (bubby) head the sound mixers were able to get a mix that was completely subjective. rather than mixing in several tracks, they had only one track with all the ambient elements and voice tracks included. it's a pretty interesting system because as bubby turns his head the sound mix spins with him so it places you with him in a way that few films do. the film also used a different cinematographer for each new scene/set. despite this the film doesn't seem to vary too radically visually. what it does do, though, is give each scene a slightly different look which makes sense since, for bubby, every new scene is a new experience.
it's not a film for the squeamish, but it's not a "henry: portrait of a serial killer" type of movie either. yes the imagery can be intense, but it's got such a different tone to it that those images don't have the same impact that they might in a different context. cult classic. B+.

Hoop Dreams - i suppose it's a question you have to ask, but it's really impossible to answer...what is the best film of 1994 - pulp fiction or hoop dreams? i give the edge to pulp fiction because it's influenced culture more, is more quotable and has stood up to more viewings. that said, hoop dreams moves me to tears every time i see it because it reaches a level of humanity that only about a dozen films ever have.
with the kid stays in the picture and tarnation i remarked that judging the film has to be somewhat separated from judging the subject. this film not only makes that task impossible, it makes it unnecessary. the film is so well done and the subjects are so sympathetic that my feelings for them merged into one. james' light, but present, directorial touch makes the documentary a film, but never sullies the pure nature of the form. he slows time, develops stories, builds drama and enhances reality, but it never comes off as contrived, didactic or disingenuous. he deftly weaves together the stories of the two boys, their parents, friends, coaches, economic realities, and social circumstances into one tapestry of american inner-city life that really is as good as any two or three films put together (think menace II society meets aka don bonus meets he got game).
on 11-17-04 i wrote: "there's a good chance that hoop dreams is going to come to dvd thanks to criterion. i want that film on dvd probably more than anything else i can think of." when i bought this film on dvd i half-jokingly remarked that i could die a happy person. that said, this isn't my favorite film of all-time. it's probably in the top ten, but it'll always hold a special place in a my heart because synthesizes so many of my interests in such a profound, entertaining, and emotional way. it combines the best and worst of sports, family, politics, and society in one work that, from a filmmaking perspective, has very few flaws. there's certainly an opinion behind the film - you can tell in the way it is edited more than anything else. unlike wiseman's work, though, the film doesn't necessarily present a thesis on the workings/failings of a system. yes, there is a filmmaker's point of view, but i don't think that james makes the same type of docu-essay that wiseman did with something like "high school" or "hospital." besides, only the most pessimistic or heartless viewer could watch this film and fault it for any sentimentality or supposedly leftist viewpoint.
lastly, if the 170 minute runtime keeps you away from the film then you probably don't deserve to have this kind of filmgoing experience anyway. if that is the case you're probably better off wasting four hours reading a danielle steele novel or something. A+.

Tarnation - experimental documentary that reminds me of a cross between the experimentation of decasia, the music and lost childhood themes of boards of canada and a "normal" personal documentary like sherman's march. that said, in many ways the film is more a film than a documentary because of its stylistic impressions which convey mood more than story and because of its obvious creation of scenes such as the final image of the filmmaker laying his head next to his mother's. this, though, has been a question in documentary cinema since its beginning - with nanook of the north during the filming of which flaherty asked nanook to alter his everyday routine for the sake of the film. flaherty did this to an even greater extent in man of aran which was more a recreation of fact mixed with myth, than a documentary.
what's important isn't the definition of the film's genre, rather it's the impact of said film; and tarnation carries plenty of impact. the narrative takes us back to the meeting of the filmmaker's grandparents, walks us through their marriage, the birth of his mother, his birth, his father leaving without knowing of him, his mother's rape and his many troubles with mental illness. during this portion of the film text on the screen gives us the history in a third person point of view while using pictures, video and music to match the plot. it's a harrowing and intense piece of filmmaking and it's one that you don't see in documentary and usually don't like to see in a conventionally narrated picture because it might come off as lazy or simple. but in this case it works because we need to get the history to understand the present and the only way this history can be recapped is if someone tells it to us. generally documentaries will try to fill in this sort of information through interviews and intertitles, but i felt this method worked rather well and was more intense than the conventional.
when people say a film is a "human" portrait, i'm not quite sure what they mean. there are a lot of attributes that seem uniquely human, and many of them aren't very flattering. usually, though, the adjective has a positive connotation. we think of a human portrait as an emotional, sensitive, multi-faceted, sympathetic look at an individual. i think that's what this film is. that said, jonathan caouette isn't the most sympathetic of filmmakers/subjects, but given the history he shows in this picture, it's not easy to to slight him for who he is and what he's done. in some ways i thought him weak, confused, self-indulgent or too prone to self-pity. however, he is, ultimately, the epitome of humanity - flawed, disturbed, selfish, ugly, beautiful, kind, and (nonsensically) hopeful. B+.
p.s. a pretty good soundtrack featuring (among others) iron & wine, low and magnetic fields.

Opposite Of Sex - christina ricci plays a jaded sixteen year old who narrates this dark, postmodern comedy. plotwise it's a little bit twisted and difficult to summarize succinctly here. the broad strokes have ricci leaving her house, moving in with her gay half-brother, stealing his lover, getting pregnant, and using a couple other guys along the way. meanwhile lisa kudrow (in a surprisingly good performance) plays the always-just-a-friend of the gay half-brother who tags along while he tries to help ricci and get back his lover.
the plot, though, is really secondary to the method of the film. it's interesting because ricci, while filling in the blanks with her voice-over, will add pithy comments and remark on how sappy the story is becoming or tell the audience to notice certain things because they'll be important to remember later in the film. most of her comments are snide or sarcastic and this creates a blase, or disinterested, tone. to me it invalidated the (few) impactful moments of the film because it gets the audience in an almost antagonistic mood. perhaps the two best examples come when we think that ricci may be dead. in the first example we hear a gunshot off camera and slowly pan towards her and the man who struggled over a pistol. they're both lying still and he is on top of her. both are motionless until his arm moves slowly, but it turns out that it's her arm moving his arm because she's under him. ricci says something like "bet you thought i was dead, huh. i can't die, though, i'm the narrator - remember? try to keep up." i actually didn't fall for it, but it created an author versus audience type of dynamic which i carried throughout the rest of the film. it happens again later after she's given birth. there are complications and we see her brother and friends grieving over her death. i did fall for it this time, but the tone was different. she says "bet you thought i couldn't die, huh. well look how sad all these people are...and i bet you may even have started to like me a bit in spite of my bitchy antics." after a bit of this it turns out she isn't dead, she was just fucking with us. in this instance i believed that she was dead, but i didn't care like she thought i might. she was a worthless manipulator. sure she's young, but i never warmed up to her, so in both instances the postmodern manipulation backfired - once because i didn't fall for it and once because i didn't care.
at the beginning of the film she exclaims "this isn't going to be the kind of film where i grow a heart of gold in the end, or say 'i learned a lot that summer,' so if that's what you're looking for you won't like this movie..." but in the end she doubles back on this. it's clear she has learned something and she says "i won't say that i grew a heart of gold, but i will say this: i sure learned a lot that summer." she says it sarcastically, yes, but it still contributed to the feeling that she, and the filmmakers, wanted to have it both ways. they want to entertain you and claim that this film is different, but it really isn't - it has many of the same conclusions that those kinds coming-of-age films always have.
i'm not sure if that makes the film better or worse. it's worse because the film takes a holier-than-thou approach to the genre, but still sells out in the end. and it's better because it acknowledges what the genre is about and makes fun of it. i can say that it didn't work for me, but i can see it working for others. it's not a film that i particularly enjoyed, but it'll stick with me longer than a slightly more enjoyable genre picture.
christina ricci is consistently in some of the more interesting independent-type pictures. C+.

Crash - short cuts and magnolia-esque in its storytelling, cast-type, and ending, but nowhere near the tour-de-force that magnolia is. it begins just after a car crash and this, along with mark isham's (who also did short cuts) ethereal score, sets the dream-like tone for the rest of the picture; to view the film as a realistic set of events would mean a less enjoyable experience. the film ends with another car crash as the camera tracks along the street and eventually ascends to give larger meaning to the picture. it's certainly an ambitious film, but one that falls short several times.
matt dillion and don cheadle were stand-outs in the packed cast, but matt dillion's character was one of the least well-drawn in the film. it was either too easy to hate him or too easy to forgive him. either way it came off as simple, lazy or cliché. already the film is in imdb.com's top #250 (though i'm sure it won't last) and this is testament to the ease with which some people are manipulated. clearly this film lacks subtlety from time to time, and yet people were sucked in. all this isn't to say that the picture was without redeeming qualities, it's just that the picture is too neat and when dealing with a subject matter as unsavory, complex and faceted as racism, neat shouldn't be the desired effect. on the positive side were some good performances, a good, complementary score and some good dialogue. paul haggis also wrote million dollar baby. C+.

Born Rich - sort of a documentary version of tart, which is a rich version of kids. the film documents the lives and views of about 15 insanely rich kids (aged 18-22). it's made by an heir to the johnson & johnson fortune. three of the kids (the filmmaker and two others) demonstrate any semblance of introspection or perspective and the rest demonstrate varying degrees of denial, ignorance, stupidity or solipsism. one euro-trash rich kid is very eloquent and well-read, so much so that he is able to justify his pathetic world view. he derives pleasure from such cultured endeavors as choosing exactly what he wants his suit to look like. he calls the encyclopedia britannica for the masses "total crap" and derides bill clinton's suit choices as simple and too proletarian. trump's daughter derives pride from being part of a family that lifted itself out of the gutter. she recalls a moment when she was young when her father, donald trump, pointed at a homeless man and said "that man is $8 billion richer than i am." later in life she understood the great gravity of this statement - trump was in such debt at the time that presumably he had negative $8 billion. of course she and her father overlook the fact that the they have a roof over their heads, cars, food and resources far beyond that of the homeless man. it's a simple-minded assessment to plainly state that a person without money is richer than donald trump when he was in debt. like i said, though, there are a few redeeming people in the film. the filmmaker (johnson) at least asks the question: what effect has this amazing degree of wealth had on my life and the life of those like me? a couple of his friends are somewhat introspective and have dealt with the wealth in relatively healthy ways, but the vast majority are simple and solipsistic. normally that's obnoxious and repulsive, but somewhat forgivable, but when you have the resources of education and comfort that these kids have, it is simply unacceptable.
the camerawork (done by the boyfriend who is part of the focus in "always a bridesmaid") is amateurish, but the content of this film cannot be matched or beaten. B.

Night And The City - this is a great film. it stars richard widmark as a "two bit hustler" who's always on the brink of something big; and it's directed by jules dassin (rififi, thieves' highway), who is rapidly rising in my book. widmark's latest scheme would have him running all the wrestling in london if he could just get the money and talent in place without allowing the whole thing to fall apart in the process.
widmark is great in the role. his big forehead and toothy smile add to his character's seedy methodology and personality. on one level the film is about a desperate man with great talent, but without a proper trade. on another level it's about the struggle between art, entertainment and money. the art is represented by old-school wrestler gregorious the great (zbyszko), the entertainment is represented by the new school wrestler "the strangler (mazurki)," and pitting the two against each other is widmark - the capitalistic promoter. which brings me to the score... there are two versions of the film - one is a british cut and the other is american. franz waxman scores the american cut and that's the one that i saw and dassin approved. the other is done by some european guy named frankel who was fairly prolific at the time. waxman's score is big, bold, powerful and dynamic. frankel's is much more subdued, small and sometimes almost whimsical or mysterious. frankel chooses to not score such scenes as the final chase which gives the film a more docu-drama feel to it - like kansas city confidential or he walked by night. in this chase scene waxman uses fast, repetitive brass to indicate the urgency of the situation, followed by deep, slower brass to indicate the seemingly impending capture. i think that waxman's score is better for the film since it lends the film a larger meaning which is fitting when you consider the art vs. entertainment motif.
also during that chase sequence we see widmark descending several sets of staircases, which obviously indicates the character's descent...the chase also occurs on the outskirts of town which further indicates widmark's exile. one of the more clever shots, though, is when widmark is actually ascending a staircase later in the pursuit. dassin does a brilliant, but simple thing. while widmark ascends the staircase from right to left, dassin slowly turns the camera counterclockwise by 90 degrees so that it looks like widmark is looking down at the ground and is going down the stairs, rather than up.

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the film is also filled with interesting, vibrant secondary characters from phil, the club owner, and his wife who tries to use widmark to get away from her husband, to gregorious the great and his sellout son. it's a fun film to watch, but it's also full of typically fateful noir themes. actually, it's fun to watch in part because it's so fateful, not in spite of that fact. when the club owner's wife leaves him she tells him not to worry - "a week will go by and then a month..." the implication being that time treads on and he'll have gotten over her. he replies by saying something like: "no, you'll come back and i'll want to take you back." as if he knows he shouldn't, but knows that he'll have to because he needs her despite his better judgment.
there are some slower moments, but overall the picture has a good flow to it which is buoyed by a solid, deep cast, a vibrant score and a compelling visual style. B++.

Destry Rides Again - one of the things that made far country such a strong film is its abundance of interesting secondary characters. i think that the same is true for this film. mischa auer plays a russian immigrant/deputy who provides comic relief and some unique dialogue. charles winniger plays the town drunk turned sheriff and is, more or less, a poor man's walter brennan. samuel hinds plays the corrupted tobacco chewing mayor/judge of the town. he was also in scarlet street and call northside 777. marlene dietrich is super hot, but not as sexy as lauren bacall in to have and have not. she plays a saloon owner who is also a singer/dancer/poker player and basically one of the guys. in one extended sequence she gets in a huge brawl with the wife of mischa auer because she won auer's pants in a game of poker. you get the idea. jimmy stewart is as young here as i've ever seen him (it came out the same year as mr. smith goes to washington). he plays a deputy who sticks to the rules and likes to keep guns out of the equation. his character reminded me of a more capable anthony perkins in tin star. stewart, though, can get tough when he needs to - and he does in the end.
one interesting element of the film is that stewart and dietrich start at opposite ends of the spectrum - she's a swashbuckling hellraiser and he's a calm peacemaker (how's that for a turn?). as the film progresses each move towards the other's original position until they have swapped roles. he leads the charge on the saloon to take the bad guys down, guns blazing. and she leads the women of the town, armed with garden tools, to the same saloon to restore peace - without guns. in this way it turns the usual roles on their head.
the film is fun and well rounded and stands out, to me anyway, as one of the better films of a very strong year (1939) for hollywood. A-.
Call Northside 777 - based on real life events, the story follows a newspaper reporter (stewart) who seeks to find the truth behind an 11 year old murder case. the wrongly accused's mother puts out an ad for a reward of $5000 for any information leading to the actual murderer in her son's case. stewart is skeptical at first, but pursues the case at his editor's behest.
the film has a realistic look to it, in part because of hathaway using real locations (the prison, in particular, was impressive). in fact, imdb.com says it was the first film to be shot on location in chicago. the film also uses the actual inventor of the lie detector test during the filming of the scene where the wrongly accused man takes the test. there's another scene in the film which involves a primitive photo fax machine which is pretty nifty even looking back on it now. any time a film shows the process of something like that it makes it more realistic, and interesting, for me. mann does this in his heist films and i think they benefit from it.
stewart worked with three major directors (capra, mann and hitchcock) and had (at least) three major personalities. it's a tough call to say who the greatest american actor is, but i think you have to take a hard look at stewart as one of the best. bogart, of course, belongs there as well.
call northside 777 falls into the docu-noir genre along with films like he walked by night and kansas city confidential which take real life cases and dramatically recreate them. toward the end call northside plunges into the noir aesthetic, but it only does this when stewart is forced underground to look for a key witness. during these scenes the cinematography is quite good - ceilings look lower because only the bottom 6.5 feet of a room are lighted, shadows are heavy, boris (the witness' boyfriend) is shown only in slivers of light, etc. it's your typical noir stuff and that's a good thing. the end of the film is typical noir in that "justice" is served, but atypical in that most noir follows the criminal as a sympathetic character; in this film the sympathetic character starts as a wrongly accused criminal and is set free in the end. in this sense it's a happy ending which, again, is atypical of much film noir. though the ending is a good one, it is not saccharine or overdone. hathaway plays it fairly straight and lets the audience fill in the emotional blanks rather than having the music swell and ending with a crane shot. worth watching if you're a stewart or film noir fan. i'm both. B+.

Hostage - a film that certainly was made for bruce willis. there are so many elements that reference his career, especially the die hard films - from set pieces like the fountain amongst a fiery shit storm to the estranged family life. but the film is plenty more than just a willis vehicle. the opening sequence reminded me of the first sequence in Assault on Precinct 13 in its ability to set a strong tone for the rest of the film. and, really, it's a pretty apt comparison because there are more similar elements between the two films. both are directed by frenchmen directing their first american picture. both films feature characters who have to deal with an early mistake throughout the rest of the film. and both films were surprisingly refreshing compared to the usual hollywood fare (xxx, bruckheimer, etc.).
i'm going to write about the opening sequence because that's all i really needed to see to know how i was going to feel about the film. it begins with a close-up of a perp who is holding two people hostage in a locked up house and the camera pulls out to reveal the police presence and the los angeles skyline. then we see willis - scruffy, bearded, sweaty, lying down with a cellphone in one hand and a comb at his beard in his other. it's a comic moment that relieves a bit of the tension already created by the few earlier shots. willis' lightly comic, lackadaisical demeanor in this sequence is just perfect - he exudes confidence and feeds off the success of his previous film characters (john mcclaine, butch, etc.) here while adding a new, over-the-hill, wrinkle to it. but the situation quickly grows out of control and the hostage taker spirals out of control and resolves to kill his hostages. willis runs from the rooftop where he was perched and tries to intervene, but by the time he makes it to the house it's too late - the deed is done. it's not just what happens or willis' performance, it's the way siri captures and presents it all. he cuts to the hostages briefly to make sure we know what is at stake, he's willing to show the brutality of the kidnapper (who hits a young boy with a telephone), he employs comic relief in a tasteful way, and the slo-motion sequence wherein willis makes a dash to save the hostages is well-filmed. he uses a few different camera angles including one where the camera is attached to willis' chest and is pointed towards his face. it's one of my favorite types of shots, but it must be used in the right situation and in a measured way (think of how aronofsky uses it in pi).
i'm not going to say the film is perfect, but it restores your confidence in hollywood's ability to entertain in an artful and intelligent manner. worth checking out. B.

In Good Company- let me start the review by getting two things cleared up: scarlett johansson is decent looking, but not hot; and she's not hollywood's hot new talent. she's a serviceable actress who uses her lips too much, and that's about it. onto the review. the film has two major focuses: the indictment of corporate american culture and generational differences. that said, the film revolves around topher grace more than anything else. the critique of corporate america was fairly prosaic - a sanitized version of anything resembling a real assault on the fundamental flaws of corporate thinking. it did brush up against some of the more obvious weak points of corporate america, and it usually did so to comic effect, which is about as much as you can expect from a film of this type. the exploration of generational differences also lacked great depth, but did get the mental wheels turning a bit and provided even more laughs. quaid and grace were both good in their roles and they had a chemistry that exceeded some of the direction. that is, the director (weitz) had more of a good thing than he knew and under-edited as a result. weitz, though, did use music fairly well. byrne's opening track to his newest album opens the film and sets the somewhat somber tone of the picture rather well. it's not that the film is somber or maudlin overall, but it certainly does explore some darker regions of grace's psyche - his failed marriage, his sense of inertia, his lack of a real home, etc. it's not a great film, but it has some touching moments, is consistently humorous and is, overall, well-constructed. B-.

Aviator - though i wouldn't call it a full redemption for scorsese, this film is a step in right direction for him.
first the man: eccentric is too obvious a word, but it fits. he was gifted, but disturbed, had great ideas and great ambition, but sometimes too much power. luckily he had enough money to help him through his many mistakes. certainly worth making a movie about since he was both great and interesting. it's really that simple.
the oscars: this is going to be scorsese best shot at an oscar since everyone knows how important he is by now and they know he deserves one. million dollar baby is better overall and has better performances, but aviator could pull it out because the academy likes epics and knows it owes scorsese. dicaprio was good, but he wasn't as good as eastwood and eastwood wasn't as good as foxx so sorry leo, but it ain't happening this year. cate blanchett over-acted as katherine hepburn, hopefully virginia madsen pulls it out instead. i like alan alda, and he was good in this picture, but morgan freeman and thomas church were better; hell even alec baldwin was better and he didn't even get nominated. screenplay...it could win here, but eternal sunshine was more ambitious, more original and was better so, really, it should win here. cinematography...the cinematography was probably the strongest point of the film - scorsese made everything in the first half of the film seem big - sweeping crane shots, lots of movement, etc. to make the man and the picture seem big. later the camera settles down as the man begins his mental descent. colors were used well and in (mostly) subtle ways to enhance the feel of a scene. he'd drop some color out of a sequence to indicate an emotional drain, or amplify the color to emphasize the beginning of a friendship. well done in this category. the only other film in this category that i've seen is house of flying daggers which has good cinematography, but it was just an imitation of "hero." editing: million dollar baby has it here, it's a film that's more ripe for this category and it's executed well, as i state below. art direction: the sets were grand, though not as impressive as those in gangs of new york. lemony snicket's did a bit more for me, but aviator will probably win here. the same goes for costume design. sound: the sound of the spruce goose was the only thing that struck me as impressive. i didn't notice any great layering or inventive use of sound, it'll probably go to ray. the music, however, was quite good and was a good part of the reason that i was able to be engaged by the film. it's not a fantastic film, but it's an oscar friendly one. it's a good story about a very interesting guy, but it's not best picture material. B.

Million Dollar Baby - i think i'm getting pretty cynical in my old age music, because i had to fight the urge within me to deflate the film while i was watching it. i kept thinking about other films that have done it better, about how elements of this film were derivative, about how it's got everything that the academy looks for (an underdog, some death, a retard, some triumph, some defeat...), etc. but in between my cynical inner thoughts were moments of being mostly moved and/or impressed by the film in one way or another. it really isn't a staggering film, and in a better year it wouldn't have garnered the best picture/director nominations, but this is 2004 and so it deserves it...and it may even deserve to win (i haven't seen finding neverland or the aviator yet).
the first element of the film that struck me was the narrative. morgan freeman really is axis on which the film turns. his character is not only the narrator and primary observer, but is also a cross between swank and eastwood's characters. as is usually the case with him, freeman turns in a great performance and could definitely take home an oscar for best supporting actor.
the bigger cinch for the film, though, is the editing oscar. sure, ray, was well-edited and the way hackford told the story of ray's early life in segmented flashbacks was nice, but million dollar baby's editing did even more. the montages were just as good and it had going for it the fact that it had fight scenes which immediately raise the bar for editing. that said, i felt that the fight scenes were one of the weak points of the film. when compared the fight scene in the set-up (1949) the fight scenes in this film are downright primitive. another element of the fight scenes which bothered me was something that all boxing movies tend to do - they depict a movie style boxing match. there is very little actual boxing or strategy, there is just fighting and slugging. no one plays defense, or wears down their opponent, they merely knock them out with an unwieldy right hook. anyone who knows anything about boxing knows that this is uncommon. most boxing films are good about getting the training and "talk" of boxing correct, but when it comes to filming the actual fight, they tend to do a fairly inaccurate job, and this film is no exception. then again the academys aren't about determining the best, rather they determine the best of the most popular.
really, though, the film isn't about boxing, it's about telling a compelling story with round, engaging characters; and here it is unequivocally successful. eastwood, freeman and swank all do excellent jobs playing their characters in believable and sympathetic ways. it's not always easy to like eastwood, but through of his sense of humor and reluctant, yet heartfelt interaction with swank the audience warms up to him. freeman and swank play less difficult roles in that they are liked by the audience throughout. swank's role is probably more trying, though, because she plays the widest range of emotions. in my review of eternal sunshine i said: "jim carrey had his best performance, but kate winslet was just as good, in a more mercurial role." and that's why she was nominated and he wasn't. i think that this is the same reason that swank will win and eastwood will not. her role covers a wider range of emotions and is likable throughout, and likable characters generally get the nod. one exception i can think of off the top of my head is rod steiger who wasn't always likable in "in the heat of the night," yet he won best actor that year (1967), despite being up against some very stiff competition (beatty, hoffman, tracy, newman).
ultimately it's a very fine picture. it's moving, it's funny, it's got some exciting moments, eastwood gets his digs in on catholicism and does a little pandering to the oscar audience. but the difference between eastwood and scorsese, late in their careers, is that eastwood panders with his heart and scorsese panders with his mind. he's a great filmmaker, but the guy does everything with his head and nothing with his gut or his heart anymore. man he bugs me. B+.

Limbo - sometimes sayles reminds me of altman. part of this may be because they're both highly regarded independent american directors, but this film was more altmanian (?) because, in the beginning, it juggles several different character lines. after about half an hour the film settles into three main characters and we mostly follow them through to the end. there's a great degree of symbolism in the film which makes it all the more engaging and interesting. the film as a whole takes on the feeling of a parable. sayles makes the film bigger in a couple, fairly obvious, ways. the film takes place in alaska and it opens with a voice-over narrative on the fishing industry of the region. the narrator discusses the beauties of the area and talks about the salmon runs that make the area thrive. as the credit sequence ends we see that the narrator is in fact a factory worker responsible for processing the salmon after they've been caught. in this way sayles immediately draws a wide picture and brings us into the personal reality of this larger image. he does this throughout by integrating symbols relating to salmon and correlating them to the characters that the film follows. there is also a peripheral set of characters who are in the business of developing alaska - this serves as a way of again making the story larger than just the three main characters.
in the first 30 minutes when characters are being established the editing is quick and fragmented. sayles will drop out of a scene with the sound blaring or, seemingly, in the middle of a cinematic thought. i thought of this primarily as a way of strengthening the limbo theme...it's like running from one end of a see-saw to the other, never really committed to either side. it was an interesting method, but not altogether aesthetically pleasing. another minor quibble i had with the first portion of the film was that there seemed to be an excessive amount of exposition. there's really no way around it since there's a lot of backstory to be told, but i found sayles' storytelling in this regard a bit simple.
after about 30 minutes i didn't think that there was any way i was going to bond with the female lead in the film, but, through a combination of good acting and a sympathetic male counterpart, i found myself more bonded to her than i thought. the other major characters were more sympathetic and i didn't have a problem understanding them at all.
i think that this is my favorite sayles film so far. as for the ending...B+.

Far Country - may be the best stewart/mann collaboration, and that's saying a lot. i think that winchester '73 is generally more highly regarded, but i like this one better because i think it's got a more round cast than winchester '73. the plot follows stewart and brennan who are taking a herd of cattle into the yukon region in the late winter/early spring. they figure on making a bundle on the cattle and retiring in utah afterwards, but stewart's strong-willed personality gets them in trouble along the way with john mcintire (who plays a sheriff and selfish entrepreneur).
j.c flippen, walter brennan, ruth roman, john mcintire and corinne calvet are all fantastic in supporting roles; and of course stewart is fantastic in the lead. flippen plays a drunk, as usual, and, as usual, does a great job of being sympathetic without being overly pathetic. walter brennan plays stewart's sidekick and their onscreen relationship is fantastic. brennan, along with calvet, act as stewart's conscience. stewart is the type who does the right thing only when it benefits him. after witnessing a robbery he shoots one of the bandits and remarks later that he killed the bandit because he shot at him, rather than because he was a thief. such is the essence of stewart's solipsistic character. unlike the characters of brennan and calvet, the characters of roman and mcintire represent stewart's darker potential. they're both utterly selfish, capable and capitalistic. i found myself respecting the capability of these two characters, but liking the less capable, but more moral, characters of calvet and brennan.
brennan and stewart are almost like an old couple. they plan on retiring in utah together and stewart always carries a bell on his horse which was given to him by brennan before the film picks up their story. this bell was to be placed on the front door of their future home in utah, and as such it becomes a symbol of the hope that stewart carries with him despite his cold exterior. it's a great symbol and the one that mann ends the film with.
as is true with most westerns, the setting itself is a great vehicle for the themes of the story. far country takes place on the extreme frontier - alaska - during a gold rush; it's a great setting because the law is in its nascent stages and money is plentiful, or, as one character puts it: "gold means stealing, and stealing leads to murder." among all this is stewart who just wants to stroll through life without having to touch, or be touched by, the rest of the world. in the end he comes to terms with the reality of the world. what's strange, though, is that things aren't completely cut and dry. yes, he learns that he must be a part of the environment.... in the final sequence he kills mcintire, the film ends on the ringing bell, and he is standing next to calvet (the female embodiment of his conscience)...but at the same time his association with brennan is what gets him shot. that is, if stewart had gone on his own he probably would have been free and clear. perhaps this makes stewart's decision to change his philosophy all the more powerful. A.

How Arnold Won The West - overall it's an entertaining, informative and fairly cohesive look at california's recall of governor davis, and subsequent election of arnold schwarzenegger, in 2003. i think it's important to note that alex cooke is a british filmmaker and she definitely approaches the film as an outsider. as a californian this can sometimes be frustrating because there is some mild america-bashing (which i understand, but wish would come another american) and she sometimes paints a stereotypical picture of californians. also, i think that the film went a bit far in painting arnold as visionless and his campaign as reclusive. cooke makes a big point of showing the campaign as a PR/marketing campaign more than a political one. she points out (rightly) that arnold's campaign was extraordinarily inaccessible to most reporters and ducked many of the tougher, or more specific, questions. arnold did do a lot of "i'll have more specific plans when i get there" type of dodging and she was certainly right to call him on it. but, to be fair, there were deleted scenes (available on the dvd) that showed arnold on the campaign trail taking unrehearsed questions from people in the crowd. also, not included on the dvd, were the specific programs and policy decisions he proposed during the debate. cooke included that debate footage which bolstered her view that the recall/election situation was a circus - like him and huffington going back and forth - but she left out the substantive material that she claimed arnold lacked. i found this to be dishonest and misleading to anyone who isn't as versed on the subject as i happen to be.
all that said, the film does a good job of espousing a fairly informed and right(as in correct)-minded opinion of the recall. sure it leaves out some of the more balancing information, but i've come to expect that from documentaries of this sort. cooke gets a pretty good sampling of opinions, so the truth is in there, it's just that sometimes it's buried a bit by her opinion as manifested in the amount of time she'll give to certain footage. it's sort of a poor english man's version of fahrenheit 9/11 in california and as such should be viewed more as a documentary essay than as fact. B.

My Architect: A Son's Journey - documentary that follows one man's quest to discover more about his famous architect father, Louis Kahn. taking a wide view of the picture you have all the right pieces for a great film - it's got a good internal drama (kahn had three families), it has a bit of mystery, it's a point of view picture somewhat similar to the jaundiced eye or capturing the friedmans, and it captures the left brain with the architecture subplot. one of the more impressive aspects of the documentary is its good editing. simple interviews with louis kahn's friends and family are cut in a less traditional documentary fashion. normally in documentaries, there is one camera and edits are made to show the back and forth of a conversation without too much panning. other times the camera will be fixed on an interviewee for an extended period of time which often makes for a dry filmgoing experience. in fog of war morris intercuts historical footage to make things more interesting and flesh out, or comment on, what mcnamara is discussing. in this film the filmmaker (kahn jr.) sometimes does the same thing and, more frequently, intercuts extra coverage into a conversation. that is, he'll be talking with an interviewee about his father's other family and he'll cut in footage of a long shot of them talking about something completely different. since it's a long shot you can't tell that they're talking about something different, and it breaks up the pacing of the film a bit. then he'll cut in a reaction shot to something the person is saying, but it won't necessarily be a real-time reaction...he just makes it seem that way through editing. this is done all the time in news programs where they have two cameras, but in this case there was only one camera. it's a small thing, but he did it well and it contributed a great deal to the flow of the picture.
beyond the (large) human element of the film was the added benefit of getting to learn about kahn's architecture. though i didn't like all of kahn's buildings (although the national assembly building in bangladesh is fucking brilliant), it did make me want to learn more about architecture. i saw a documentary on the work of i.m. pei and, though it was very interesting, it was this film and kahn's work that made me realized how great architecture is. the moving shots inside the building in dacca made me see architecture as a living art - as you move the art of the building changes and it also changes over time - as the building ages and as buildings around it change. film, music and now architecture are my favorite art forms. B+

Tin Star - films like these are why i watch 523 movies a year. i bought this film having never heard a thing about it. the reason? anthony mann. henry fonda and anthony perkins were just icing on the cake. anthony mann's 1950s westerns are consistently great and he has cracked into that select category of directors whose work i would like to explore completely. there are some directors who are mildly interesting, but there aren't very many who inspire me to want to see every single thing they have done.
from the opening to the closing this film is fantastic. i love films that just jump right into it; mann does this in bend of the river, far country and winchester 73 as well. this one begins with fonda towing a second horse with a dead man laid out on the horse's back. immediately we are drawn into the film. who is the dead man? who is fonda? what happened and what is going to happen? that's how you open a film. fonda, as it turns out, is an ex-sheriff turned bounty hunter who has come to town to claim his reward from the green sheriff played by anthony perkins. it occurred to me that either one of these guys could have played the other at some point in their career. perkins can be dark (psycho) and can be the everyman (trial, tin star) and so can fonda (in my darling clementine he does both, in tin star he plays a darker character and in grapes of wrath he plays the everyman).
mann's direction isn't particularly striking, rather it emphasizes characterization, writing and storytelling. this isn't a bad thing at all - some of the best directed films aren't particularly stylized. A-.

Thriller: A Cruel Picture - one of the few swedish pictures to actually be banned in that country, and that's about all this film has going for it. i don't know what it was about the 70s that caused these sorts of films to be made...i spit on your grave, last house on the left, thriller, etc. all female revenge films that are known more for their shock value than anything else. this one is more explicit than those other ones i listed, but that doesn't make it any more effective. one of the more memorable moments was seeing the scalpel pierce a woman's eye...reminiscent of un chien andalou or zombi, but better than either because the filmmakers actually used a real corpse to get the full effect. the revenge rampage portion of the film fell really short and the artistic merits of this picture didn't approach that of last house on the left. the pimp character constantly appears at a desk in front of a typewriter which got me thinking about the film on another level - the pimp as the author and what ramifications that might have for the rest of the film. i couldn't really get it to work out symbolically and i don't think the correlation was really made, but i did give the film the benefit of the doubt...for a while. not really worth your time unless you're really into this stuff. if you're at all curious be fore-warned - it's extremely explicit. C-.

Kanto Wanderer - seijun suzuki (branded to kill, tokyo drifter, tattooed life) has yet to disappoint me - his direction consistently pushes the envelope, his stories are always interesting on some level, and his visual storytelling can be about as inventive and expressionistic as you're likely to see. the story is shakespearean in that it's serpentine and involves a lot of subplot. katsura, the main character, is played by a sort of poor man's tatsuya nakadai in akira kobayashi. this isn't to slight his performance - quite the contrary, his performance was very good which is exactly why i compared him to nakadai. there are so many visual flourishes throughout he film that recalling them all here would be lengthy and impossible (because of my memory), but suffice it to say that suzuki is at top form here. his later films (branded to kill, tokyo drifter) are more ambitious in their direction (he toys with space and time more), but this film strikes a balance between the experimental, the artistic, the expressionistic and the classical. he's able to do things that most wouldn't even attempt (like splitting the screen with a fuzzy amber line, or using spotlights during a fight, or changing the background lighting in certain scenes) in such a way that it adds to the film's depth and feel, rather than detracting from it because it comes off as too pedantic or avant-garde. naturally this is a judgment call, but in my judgment he's able to pull it off without it coming off as forced or experimental for the sake of experimentation (not that that doesn't have its place, because it does). of course the film is more than just a visual tour de force, it's also a tale of a bygone age. katsura is a youngish yakuza who prefers the old yakuza code, but the world around him has changed. gambling and women are in and honor is lost. like a kurosawa film, it's a world replete with amateurs and bottom dwellers. B++.

Circle Of Iron - filmed parable about a man seeking Zetan (christopher lee) who holds a book which is reputed to hold the answers to life's questions. along the way he must face several trials and he runs into all sorts of colorful characters (david carradine in four roles, eli wallach, and others). the acting and the fight sequences were weak points, but the story functions well to encapsulate bruce lee's philosophy of no way as the way. perhaps that requires some background - the film was made posthumously, but was originally conceived by lee. much of bruce lee's later years were spent on developing a martial arts style (and life philosophy) that centered around the idea of embracing not one style (in kung-fu: crane, snake, etc., in life: buddhism, christianity, etc.), but all styles. beyond this the film is rather good looking and always engaging. it may have aged a bit, but it's still worth watching if you're into this kinda thing. B.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - uninspired, uninteresting and slowly paced film from the same guy who did get carter and croupier. clive owen gets more roles than his talent merits. one interesting thing about the film is that hodges chooses to skip over moments that would be covered by most directors. when owen comes back home to see his dead brother, for example, his mother has to break the news to him. her doing this is skipped and the edit goes from owen coming into the front door to him opening the bathroom door where his brother committed suicide. why hodges chose to not include the news being broken is unclear. another example is when owen shaves his beard and gets a haircut to symbolize his return to his old gangster ways. this would normally be an important scene, but is edited out by showing the barber's sheet going over owen's body before and then immediately being lifted to reveal a clean cut owen. these decisions are odd considering using time for moments like these seem warranted, especially relative to the time he wastes in the first part of the film - the first hour should have been edited down to about 20-30 minutes. just not a very well-done or interesting film overall. C-.

Enduring Love - fairly entertaining and thoughtful picture about the nature of love, regret, and insane englishmen. the opening scene was an attention grabber for me in part because of the potential for metaphorical readings. it features a couple in a large field who suddenly see a red hot-air balloon which is out of control and has a boy in the basket. the couple, and several other bystanders, run to grab the balloon and free the boy but a gust of wind sends the balloon flying just as it appears they have stopped the balloon enough to save the boy. as the balloon ascends the bystanders hold on, but quickly figure out that they had better let go while they still can. all, but one, do just that and survive. the one who holds on falls a few seconds later and dies. the boy eventually figures out how to release the hot-air from the balloon and lands safely a few miles away.
what follows is a fairly simple meditation on the nature of love (is it real and spiritual, or just the next phase of evolution?) and an examination of one man's inability to forgive himself for letting go of the balloon. rhys ifans plays a psycho stalker who was among the bystanders who lived through the event. he becomes obsessed with the main character and is a personification of the guilt and regret the main character feels after the incident. it's a pretty good film with a pretty good idea. it would have been nice if the filmmakers were able to create a situation that was a little more regretful. that is, sure the guy let go, but there's really not much of a chance that him holding on would have brought the balloon down fast enough to save the man who fell to his death. this is a minor quibble, but it did detract from my fully empathizing with his guilt. B.

Shane - definitely one of my favorite westerns of all-time. it's a very traditional film in a lot of ways, but westerns usually are. i think that in our pc times films like this may be shunned a bit by academics because of the way they portray certain roles, but academia is often about making mountains out of mole hills. there are several reasons that i like this one so much, but i think that the biggest is that it's told from the perspective of a young boy. i first watched this when i was probably about joey's age and i've always had an empathy with young kids in films. i remember watching untouchables for the first time with my dad when i was pretty young. there's a famous scene wherein a baby carriage is rolling down a bunch of stairs in slow motion. i sorta freaked out because i didn't want the baby to be hurt and i think i've always been like that with movies. telling the story in this way definitely gives the film a greater degree of emotional latitude and it also serves as a pretty great plot device. kids are great devices in films because they ask the questions that the audience might want to ask. explaining things to kids is a great way to get exposition out of the way or telling the audience basic things about a character that might normally remain unknown.
victor young's score is best described as obvious; that said, it works absolutely. we know immediately when trouble is coming, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. stevens also knows when to let the action and onscreen sound do the work. the picture's sound is really well layered and is pretty ahead of its time in this regard. nowadays every picture has a huge sound crew working on separating all the different channels of ambient and action sounds, but that wasn't true in 1953.
i'm not sure when cinemascope became the norm, but i know it wasn't this early - and that's a shame because this picture would have filled a 1.85 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio rather nicely. as is the cinematography is great. the colors are vibrant and lush, completely appropriate for the potential of the west, plus the expansive landscapes are beautiful. stevens does an equally nice job with his interiors. the bar room brawl (one of the best i've ever seen) is shot amazingly well and edited together masterfully. stevens puts the camera under stairs and behind posts and people to give you the feeling that you're actually there. he switches up the distances at which the fight is taking place to give a better feel for space and movement; it's great stuff.
this film is clearly a classic and, i think, well-deserved of its reputation. A.

From Here To Eternity - the reason i put this film to the top of my netflix queue is that i saw donna reed beat out thelma ritter in the best supporting actress category that year. by the time i got the film i had completely forgotten that this was the reason so i didn't go into this film with that on my mind. that said, reed turned in probably the best performance of the film, but ritter's performance in pickup on south street was better - more unique, more memorable, had just as much range and was just plain better; and so goes the film... looking over the multiple nominations (picture, director, sound, editing, cinematography, screenplay, sup. actor/actress (won), score, actor/actor/actress, costume design (lost)) that this film garnered i can't help but think it was a weak year. in fact, shane and stalag 17 should have cleaned up, but i guess patriotism was running high at the time so "from here to eternity" was the big winner.
the first half of the film does a good job of balancing the various storylines, and thus keeping the viewer engaged. unfortunately the second half gets a bit bogged down in sentimentality and then patriotism. the film never really won me over - clift's cool hand luke type of character just didn't inspire me and lancaster was good, but not great. i can see why this film won for best picture, but in retrospect i think many would admit it's not as good as stalag 17 or shane. C+.

Wrong Man - hitchcock's most emotionally moving film. just a couple days ago (11/22) i was discussing the relative merits of hitchcock - he said hitch was the greatest of all-time and i contended that he was certainly great, but not the greatest. i prefer kubrick's big three (paths of glory, killing and dr. strangelove) to anything hitchcock has ever done; i prefer kurosawa's storytelling and personal philosophy to hitchcock's work; john ford and orson welles were probably better technicians than hitchcock; griffith did more for film than hitchcock....etc. my major point during the discussion was that hitchcock's films rarely, if ever, moved me the way that p.t. anderson does in every film of his, or the way that kubrick does, or the way that kurosawa does. sure hitchcock is an entertaining director and his longevity is nearly unmatched, and he worked in television as well as in film, but his films never really captured my heart. the wrong man, though, did that. as many great leading men as hitchcock has had during his career, none of them has made the emotional impact that fonda did in this film. it's a simple story of mistaken identity and fonda plays the everyman who gets caught up in a series of unfortunate breaks. it still has the hitchcock signature, but it's not a prototypical hitchcock film. i'm beginning to see that what i thought was the typical hitchcock film, isn't really all that typical - especially of his earlier films. i guess that i knew him most for his 50s and 60s pictures; the big stuff like birds, strangers on a train, psycho, north by northwest, vertigo, and rear window.
hitchcock doesn't play games with this film, there's no artifice, no cameo, no jokes; in this way it's rather un-hitchcockean. however he does impart to the viewer fonda's sense of paranoia and claustrophobia in a typical hitchcockean way. also, when we see the real criminal for the first time there is a classic double exposure overlay that hitchcock uses to make the point. in these ways we see hitch being himself, but in a different suit, as it were. it's not an amazing technical film, but in a way it's hitchcock's most human, and that's why i liked it so much. B+.

El Hijo De La Novia (Son Of The Bride) - here's another film i'm not likely to see ever again, but that's not because it's not good. it's pretty similar to the barbarian invasions in tone and theme. it's the kind of film you've seen plenty of times before, especially if you're a middle-aged woman, but the film is able to go beyond that convention a bit. it's a bit more stylish, a bit more well-drawn, it's got better acting, better comic relief and it doesn't ever have that "made for lifetime" feel to it; in other words, it's genuine. even though it's a middle-aged type of film it's a film that most anyone can relate to because the feelings and experiences aren't entirely specific. sure there are moments of parental regret which are no doubt more heartfelt by those who have had such regret, but everyone can relate the other side of that equation in some way and the film allows for that by developing the child's character. i think that that's part of the film's strength - it has a good cast of well-developed characters and the writing is such that it's open to interpretation. if you see the old couple and think about your great grandmother who had alzheimer's (as i did), then you feel that portion of the story, or if you see the old couple as what could have been with your parents (as melanie probably did), then you empathize with that portion of the story; and the film does down the line like that with all the different relationships. best of all, though, is that the film didn't take itself to seriously. the film never grew too maudlin or depressing, it had a sense of humor and balance that is present in life, but not always in dramatic pictures. B+.

Stage Fright - another hitchcock down. they're starting to blend together a bit, but this one is one of the better films of his that i've seen during this recent run of his films. it stars wyman and dietrich, who are both top notch. i think that if i were a woman i would want hitchcock to direct me, not only because he's one of the true geniuses of film, but because his women always turn out good performances, look good and are often different from the norm in some way. thinking of hedren in the birds or novak in vertigo or wyman/dietrich in this film or kelly in dial m for murder or...the list goes on. all of those performances are good and in all of them the woman is multi-faceted. sometimes she's not entirely sympathetic (kelly, dietrich) sometimes she exudes an outward weakness, but an inner strength (wyman), sometimes she's mysterious and sexy (hedren) or sometimes she changes in the middle of the film (novak). it's odd that hitchcock directed so many great women considering his clear 'issues' with females.
hitchcock is a fan of curtains. he uses them, usually, to add to the mystery, the feeling of being watched, the claustrophobia, etc. this film begins with a curtain being raised over the city, which indicates the film as a production - it denotes a certain separation right off the bat. (he also used curtains memorably in rope and dial m for murder) then the film jumps right into the action - a moving car, a man (todd), a woman (wyman), some mysterious talk and then comes the flashback. the man tells a story of why he's on the run and why he needs wyman's help. the film's mystery unfolds from there. it's a pretty good ride, with some side humor and distractions.
alastair sim plays wyman's father and he almost steals the show from wyman and dietrich. he plays scrooge in the 1951 version of a christmas carol, which i will now have to rent and watch again. B+. p.s. check out the woman behind the shooting gallery stand, she's a hoot.
Suspicion - another solid one from hitchcock. this one uses shadows really well (again), but this time he uses them more to show the dementia of the character (fontaine) than to give the impression of sinister goings-on. hitchcock plays will belief and skepticism quite a bit. in stage fright wyman was the ultimate believer, until the very end where she saw todd's true character. in this film, fontaine is closer to the other end of the spectrum - she wants to believe that cary grant is a good guy, but she steadily begins to see signs the point to him being a swindler and possibly a murderer. she (and we) has to deal with the thought of her husband as a bad person. is she being paranoid or are her suspicions well-founded and factual? just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. B.

Foreign Correspondent - i have to be immodest for a second here...from the opening credits i suspected this was hitchcock's first american film. i've never seen this one before and don't know enough about hitchcock to have any past knowledge, but it was evident from the "patriotic" (in quotes because it seemed out of character for hitchcock) tone that this was his first american film. actually i was wrong, it's his second, but his first (rebecca) starred sir laurence olivier, was based upon a british novel and came out the same year so that one only half counts. really all this demonstrates (beyond my amazing talent for this sort of thing) though, is that this film is anything but the type of inventive and engaging film that hitchcock is known for making. it has elements of other hitchcock films, from notorious to the 39 steps, but it just doesn't measure up. joel mccrea went on to do sullivan's travels next year and he was infinitely better in that infinitely better film. this one's a rare dud from hitchcock. C-.

Gold Rush (1942 re-release version) - mostly interesting because of how it differs from the longer, silent 1925 version. in 1942 chaplin re-released gold rush with a soundtrack and narration (by him) in order to fill in the blanks and move the action along. what results is a sort of hacked version of a classic. i've only seen the 1925 version once, but this one's 20+ minutes shorter so you know there's a lot of plot and comedy bits missing. it's amazing how you can take narration or certain elements for granted in a film that doesn't have an alternate version. but once you start thinking about a film like this without narration and without sound effects, it becomes clear how much directors can subtract from a film through addition of these elements. in almost every case chaplin's narration does little to further the comedy, instead it's a way of (mostly) filling in the blanks left by the massive editing he did for this version. it's sort of a shame, but it's also endlessly interesting to compare the two. if i had more time i'd compare the two and see what he added, left out, and changed. it would make for a pretty great paper on the influence of the sound era on the silent film form. B-.

Citizen Kane - it's the most important film in the history of cinema, and it's the film by which all other films will be measured. that doesn't necessarily make it the best film of all-time, but it certainly is up there. if you can't watch the film and respect it then you're not a cinephile, and though i hate saying things like that, it's true. it's impossible to deny the impact of the film. it did many things first, many others best, and it combined so many techniques that had been done before in one, cohesive master opus. toland's use of deep focus is beyond anything i've ever seen and it's remarkably transparent. during roger ebert's commentary he makes the point that this film is a special effects film. hearing this took me aback at first, but when you see the seamless nature of the dissolves, the edits, the deep focus and all that went behind making the picture as big and great as it is, then you can't deny his point.
welles and toland expanded the use of the camera as much as anyone before them, so far as i know. much of this is due to the extraordinary (both in its range of employment and as a technical achievement) use of deep focus. the deep focus is used as a visual device, to complement the well thought out compositions, to strengthen themes or dramatic elements visually, and much more. in other words, it's not just a great technical achievement by toland, it's also a perfectly complementing element of the entire film. there's nothing worse than seeing a director, or other technician, with a great idea but no appropriate outlet for it. this is not a problem for welles or toland - the technical achievements serve the film rather than vise versa.
acting is uniformly excellent. welles is fantastic in the hardest role in the film, but, really, everyone does a great job. bernard herrmann's score (his first) is very good, but not his best. i watched the film with commentary so i can't really say i got to listen to it all that much.
ebert's commentary was pretty good. he talked mostly about the technique of the film, the use of certain shots and lab techniques to bring about certain looks, or the use of matte paintings to make the film appear bigger than the budget allowed. a very good commentary track, but not brilliant.
i don't know that i have any really well-based criticism of the film. i've seen it maybe five or six times and i've always seen it differently each time, and that's a testament to the depth of the film. i think my only reason for not loving the film is that i feel as though the story should have more of an impact than it does. the film does have humanity and heart, but it's not a film that demands its viewer feel. sure there is an undercurrent of sympathy for kane and the story, especially with the infamous ending, but the film doesn't ever stray into that area of my heart that films like cool hand luke, the graduate or others do. at the same time i can't really fault the film, or welles, for this fact. i think that, to a certain extent, welles knew this was going to be the case. i don't think he wanted the audience to be heartbroken by the story. sad, maybe, but not heartbroken or seriously emotionally invested. some of the reason i think this is because the film is so immense and immensely cinematic. the film is always above us, as is kane. it's such a piece of cinema that it almost separates itself from its audience. it's the anti-cinema verite, and thus asks you less to feel and more to think. so that's why i don't think it'll crack my top ten any time soon, but i'll always recognize is for a true artistic masterpiece. A.
bernard herrmann, orson welles, gregg toland, agnes moorehead, robert wise, alan ladd, joseph cotten....
Ray - from the director of "proof of life" comes...maybe that's not the best way to start a review of a film i actually liked. okay...
biopics are a difficult lot. stone's "doors" was okay, mann's "ali" was unimpressive, harris' "pollock" was stock...the problem with biopics is that capturing a real person's life in an honest way, and finding someone decent to portray them, is usually just too hard. that brings me to jamie foxx. i basically said in my review of collateral that jamie foxx was officially a good actor, and this film will make others realize this. on npr the other day they had a film "expert" who was talking about the possibility of foxx winning an academy award. he said that foxx looked good, but didn't sing his own stuff and that best actor/actress nominees in the past haven't won when they lip-synched through the singing. he cited natalie wood in west side story who didn't win because she didn't sing herself. i think the major difference between past performances and this one is that ray charles is a real person and he was still alive during the filming of the movie. in other words, i don't think you can fault foxx's performance at all. plus he's got the public sympathy and the cripple card (think rain man, my left foot, etc.) so i'd bet on foxx, barring something great in the next couple months. regina king also turns in a good, powerful performance.
the film created several pretty inspiring moments. there was one scene in which charles had to fill twenty more minutes to complete his part of a contract. on the fly he creates another hit song. i don't know if it was a film contrivance or a reality, but it felt more like the former. at the same time it was one i was willing to roll with because it felt like charles really was that much of a genius. another similar scene came when his mistress broke us with him, which immediately led to him writing "hit the road jack" in her presence. it felt like an amazingly inspired moment, to turn that pain into one of the most popular songs in his catalog, right there on the spot. again, this was probably more a film contrivance than a portrayal of fact, but it felt right enough to roll with it.
charles' music was contextualized by hackford in a more meaningful way than i expected, or have seen from similar films. every song has a story and hackford reinforces this idea with judicious cross-cutting between the performance of a song, and the aspect of charles' life that inspired it. it elevated the meaning of the music and broke up the obligatory performance sequences; a nice touch.
the film begins with charles in the 1950s, he's already blind and about to hit the road to find his first job. his formative years are retold in fragments as we follow him through his first few jobs. hackford employs a different film stock and look to signify the flashback. colors are brighter, but the film is more grainy, like 16mm film or something. i liked this technique of telling the story of his becoming blind and the death of his brother, more than starting chronologically. hackford shows us effect and then cause, and it works well. we get to know who charles is, and then why he's that way.
the film isn't entirely a hagiography either, and that's extremely important with films like this. we see charles, warts and all. we see his fight with drugs, his adultery, and we see the negative effects (on his family) of his obsession with music.
without a doubt, the worst part of the film is its ending. like ali, ray doesn't quite know how to end. in ali it's a freeze frame after the rumble in the jungle and the film is over. in ray it's a text epilogue accompanied by photos of the real ray charles. it basically says that for the next forty years ray charles kept making music and was a good guy. it comes off as a bit awkward and a little precious. i generally don't dig academy bait like this, but they did a good job with this one. ray charles' story is compelling and moving; the film didn't get in the way of that too much, and hammed it up a bit (within reason) when it got the opportunity. it's sometimes said that a script is so good that not even a good director could ruin it. the idea is that "good" directors sometimes interject themselves into a picture too much, thus ruining decent screenplays. in this case hackford demonstrated a decent sense for when to let the story tell itself. hopefully when they make a film about johnny cash it's equally well done. B+.

Dial M For Murder - in my review for the lady vanishes i mentioned hitchcock's penchant for confined spaces. that film took place almost entirely on a train, rope was all done in one apartment, lifeboat was done on a lifeboat drifting at sea, rear window took place in stewart's apartment, and this film takes place primarily in grace kelly and ray milland's home. my dad doesn't like rope because he thinks it's a filmed play, he's crazy. rope and dial m for murder are both based on plays, but are hardly as constrained as a play. hitchcock moves the camera remarkably well and uses his edits wisely. this film also has the distinction of being made as a 3D film. i was lucky enough to see it in the theater in 3D presentation a long time ago as part of a double bill with comin' at ya! it was so long ago though that i decided to count this viewing as my first time. milland is great as the suave, jealous husband who has planned the murder of his wife (kelly) down to the last detail. of course things never turn out quite as planned, but it's just as well because seeing milland recover on the fly is as entertaining as it was seeing him unfold his plan to the old college pal (dawson) he was blackmailing to commit the murder for him in the first place. it's a great yarn and hitchcock unfolds everything so neatly that i couldn't help but smile. this film doesn't usually get mentioned with his A-list titles (north by northwest, vertigo, psycho, birds...), but is just as entertaining as most of those. a really fun film. A--. p.s. this one has the best cameo from hitchcock. milland and dawson went to college together and recall the old days by looking at an old picture - hitchcock is in the picture sitting at the same table as milland and dawson. they go on to talk about one of their pals named "alfred." good stuff.

Pickup On South Street - a good film that could have been better. it's about a pickpocket (richard widmark) who unwittingly gets more than he bargained for when he picks the purse of a young woman. inside her wallet is secret government information which she was transferring from a communist agent to a communist leader.
fuller (steel helmet, naked kiss, etc.) isn't afraid to move the camera to make an emotional point. in this way the film is visually somewhat similar to the graduate. it's the kind of thing that only cinema can do and it's a shame that more directors don't do it. sweeping in on a character when something important happens, or moving around them when their view changes, etc. widmark is good, but thelma ritter, in a supporting role, does an even better job. she probably should have been nominated for a supporting actress award. nevermind, i just checked imdb.com and she was nominated. in that case, she probably should have won. her character is the most sympathetic and, next to widmark, the most complicated.
in this film fuller creates a world in which money rules all. through the first half of the film all decisions are made in the interest of self-preservation. ritter's character dimes out her bud (widmark) for less than $40. at the same time widmark is willing to deal with communists so long as it means finally getting the big score for which he's been looking. at the same time there is an element of professionalism amongst those in the underworld. widmark understands that ritter will sell him out, and doesn't begrudge her anything because of it. he remarks "after all she's gotta eat." there is a sense that this is what people do, and this is what they are and everything is understood. in this way fuller creates a world of archetypes who play out their hand to the best of their ability. widmark is faced with the opportunity to hand over the wallet that he's stolen earlier in the film without consequence, but he balks at the cops when they present him with the offer because he thinks they'll bite him in the ass even if he helps them. it recalls the old tale of the scorpion and the frog of which widmark must have been well aware. i really liked this element of the film because it fits well into the noir genre where everyone is selfish and things are totally dark. when the woman whose wallet is stolen finds widmark by going underground, she is instantly attracted to him and she tries to convince him that her love is genuine, but he figures she's playing an angle so he shuns her. he tries to squeeze her for some money in return for the valuable microfilm he stole from her, meanwhile she's being squeezed from the other side by the ex-boyfriend communist operative, who gave her the film to carry across town in the first place. ritter's character also shows weakness and sentimentality and she pays for it more dearly.
up to this point the film was great, but then things took a turn. widmark seemingly falls in love and hunts down the commies on his own. in the end the woman lives through a gunshot wound and widmark is the hero. it's an unsatisfying ending to a film with much darker, and therefore better, beginnings. i've said it before, but i'll repeat it again - i like my film noir to be truly noir, and this one didn't really do that. other than that the film is good, it's got plenty of good direction and the writing creates some nice dynamics between the characters, but i didn't like it as much as i could have. B.

Man Who Knew Bush - not the same kind of anti-bush documentary that you're used to. this one follows a distant relative of bush who tells of his one encounter with the president (while both men were drunk) and much more. he comments on the history of the family, of politics, of the schools bush attended, etc. he's a virtual fountain of knowledge and that alone was worth the 75 minutes. that said, the film is not very focused and many might be turned off by this fact. from a filmmaking perspective the film has an interesting style. berlin seems to have a knack for editing in little buffer shots and infixes, to borrow a linguistic term. during interviews, for example, he'll edit in a shot of the interviewee's hands, or something similar. it's good for pacing and feel as well as offering a more complete look at the person's physical mannerisms and character; a nice touch. B-. one interesting fact in the film was presented by a genealogist who said that the bush family are related (anywhere from 8th-12th cousin-relations) to 50% of the country. crazy.
Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster - i used to love metallica, but their last couple albums sucked and then there's the whole napster thing...so now i'm sort of ambivalent. if nothing else, this documentary humanizes a group of guys who have often been above the rest of us. it adds a new wrinkle to films like gimme shelter and don't look back, which followed the rolling stones and bob dylan, respectively. this film follows another giant rock group, but this time it's on their downswing and the camera makes its way into group therapy sessions. it's a pretty odd experience in that way, because so infrequently do we see rock stars at their most vulnerable. sinofsky and berlinger (brother's keeper) do an expectedly good job of telling the story, even to non-metallica fans; they give just the right amount of information, at just the right time. the film is a bit on the long side, especially for a documentary, but there's enough material here to justify it. i do think that the film has a good bit to offer to people who don't like metallica or aren't very interested in the usual music documentaries. the reason is that the film operates fairly well on the human drama level. by the end of the film i felt a little fed up with the group therapy footage, but that was more of a general response to therapy than it was to the film in particular. it'll get you in touch with your feelings. B-.

Last Seduction - john dahl is a sleeper director. his biggest film is joy ride which is a well done and entertaining picture, but not really indicative of his better work. rounders also sort of slipped under the radar. and his two best pictures (red rock west and last seduction) are virtually unknown despite having noteworthy actors and being damn good films. like red rock west, the last seduction is a neo-noir, or post-noir, or modern noir, or whatever you want to call it. it's a 90s color film that borrows heavily from noir conventions, we'll put it that way. fiorentino plays the femme fatale and, like in depalma's "femme fatale," the film revolves around her more than it does the patsy (ably played by bill paxton, er bill pullman). she does a great job in selling the character which is important because the ending is a bit of a hard sell and requires the audience to believe she is capable of what she does. dahl's greatest strength is his storytelling. his pacing is right where it needs to be in each picture, he unfolds each character in an even and natural way, the mystery is never too easy to unravel, but at the same time it's still believable. he doesn't generally write his own stuff, but his films are always well-written. they always have a natural unfolding about them, there aren't any lulls in his films, the mysterious aspects of the film are never too far in the distance, yet at the same time he is able to develop his characters and entertain the audience. this is the art of storytelling - balancing the different elements in an enjoyable, reasonable and naturalistic way; and this is what john dahl does so well in this picture. icing on the cake is the play on the film noir conventions, the well-matched soundtrack, the performances and the comic relief. B++.

Forgotten Silver - it's a fictional documentary directed by peter jackson. yes, most would call it a mockumentary, but that might be misleading since you probably first think of "this is spinal tap" when thinking of mockumentaries. this film does poke fun at documentaries and it does have a tongue in cheek aspect to it, but it's not the all out fake that spinal tap is. the film follows peter jackson as he retells his unearthing of some old reels of film that some old lady brought to his attention. these old reels, it turns out, were but a small sampling of the cinematic genius of the fictional filmmaker colin mckenzie. the rest of the mockumentary follows jackson as he researches the life and work of mckenzie. in order to sell the authenticity of the documentary, jackson enlisted the help of harvey weinstein, sam neill, and leonard maltin who offer up fairly convincing testimony to the lost genius of colin mckenzie. i went into the film knowing it was a fake, but i'm fairly confident that i would have been able to figure it out without the foreknowledge of its true purpose. there are a good number of decent clues in the film and knowing peter jackson and his sense of humor would have been enough for me to put things together. at the time of its release, however, there were several disappointed viewers who bought into the film and wrote into the television station to voice their displeasure after they discovered the truth. apparently jackson even got a few letters from supposed film majors who claimed to have known of mckenzie's work before they had seen the documentary. people are funny.
what amazed me about the film was its ability to create this fictional non-fiction which could inspire moments of both laughter and pathos. it was able to walk a fine line between all out parody and actual documentary that, frankly, boggles the mind. towards the end of the "documentary" we see "recovered" footage of mckenzie filming a scene as a war photographer. at one point he puts his camera on the ground to help a wounded soldier and is gunned down in the process. the scene is both funny and touching because, in an odd way, despite the satirical tone of the film, they have actually created a sympathetic character.
it's also a film that must have been infinitely enjoyable to make. there was so much "stock footage" that they had to create and they did that really well, using all sorts of different methods. sometimes they just filmed something in black and white and made it dirty or scratchy, and other times they used digital technology to create the desired effects...interesting and entertaining stuff. B+.
Primer - i don't know where to start with this film. it's definitely worth checking out. it's also a pretty tough film to watch in some ways. the film is constantly unfolding one step ahead of the viewer and that keeps things constantly interesting, but also a bit confusing. unfortunately the ending doesn't wrap things up into one nice bow, but i actually didn't mind that fact too much. the teaser is this: a film about a couple of engineers who are working on an unknown device which happens to have some unexpected consequences and far-reaching implications. the plot is, almost literally, infinitely fascinating and that's saying a lot. again, the downside to this is that one viewing really doesn't seem like enough because the film doesn't provide all the answers for you right away. visually the film is very indie. a lot of the film is yellow because of, i presume, underexposure and underlighting. the direction was mostly by the numbers and capable, but unremarkable. however, there were at least two occasions which rose above average. one was the turning point of the film, abe walks out onto the roof of a building and we are blinded by the sunlight briefly as he walks towards the edge to look down on aaron in the courtyard below. instantly i knew that the dynamic of the film had changed - we were outdoors, the camera looked directly into the light and the characters were on different levels. touches like this make a decent film better. a cerebral, compelling filmgoing experience. B+.

Trainspotting - this one falls into the "very good, but a bit overrated" category. boyle's direction is befitting of the subject matter - it's sometimes claustrophobic, sometimes naturalistic, sometimes flashy, sometimes overly stylish and always right where it needs to be. the writing, of course, is very good and has a very unique voice. boyle wears his influences on his sleeve - from a clockwork orange to taxi driver - but the film manages to not be entirely derivative. ironically, it spawned a wave of "brit-grit" films from lock stock and two smoking barrels to nil by mouth. none of them, though, were as good as this one, and that's why the film gets so much hype. the soundtrack, as an album, is great, but doesn't function quite as well as a soundtrack. that's not to say that it's not good, it just that the album is better than the music is when placed in the film. there are one or two clunkers in the film, but overall the film has solid musical choices. all the acting is spot on and whenever talk of a sequel, or prequel, comes up i get a little sick because replacing the actors would be a travesty. B+.

Koyaanisqatsi- extraordinarily powerful. i really don't feel like saying much about this film, i've probably said most of it before anyway, but do know that this film is amazing in every possible way. in terms of film scores there is the good, the bad and the ugly, the graduate and koyaanisqatsi which tower above everything else. there are other fantastic scores, yes, but those three are in their own league because music and image become one, inextricable, entity; and because in each case the music is extraordinarily good on its own. A+.

Pieces Of April - i'm trying to think of another thanksgiving film that's better than this one (besides the obvious "planes, trains and automobiles") and i can't do it. this film isn't amazing, but it is exactly as good as its capable of being. films like this are probably the future of "independent" cinema, for better or worse. it's got big studio backing (but a small budget - $300k), a few established actors and a good idea. stylistically it's an independent feature - it's shot using dv with a lot of handheld camera work and a jumpy editing style (at least during the introductions). all the music in the film (except for the final sequence) is diegetic. it got me thinking what the best soundtrack is to a bad film...this has a really good soundtrack (though you don't really notice it in the film), but the film is good so it doesn't count. morvern callar has a great soundtrack, but isn't a very good movie so that one's in the running....but i digress.
katie holmes does a decent acting job, but is outplayed by virtually everyone else in the film. that's generally the rule with independent features like this - since they are less concerned about the marketability of the film, they can afford to give up something in the looks department in exchange for superior talent. the film also benefits from a good balance of the comic and the serious. at just under 75 minutes the film is definitely on the short side, but i'm willing to pay just as much to see this as i would be to see "gangs of new york" which is twice as long, cost 100 times more to make, and wasn't as good. B.

Lost Weekend - there's a lot to say about this film. billy wilder, jane wyman and ray milland all did a great job with the film. wilder's storytelling is compelling and varies enough from other noir to make it interesting. the first flashback of the film doesn't occur until 30 minutes into the movie and then there are a few more as the film progresses. milland and wyman are great together. milland sells the role of an alcoholic as well as anyone this side of nicholas cage. wyman is great as the girlfriend who is torn apart by milland's addiction. her acting in the final sequence turns what, in other hands, might be contrived, into an inspired and inspiring moment. miklos rozsa's score is right where it needs to be, but that's not to say that it's old hat. in some ways it sounded to me like a definitive film noir score. i don't know how to really describe it...it has flows which convey the hope of the viewer, but ebbs that match the reality of the protagonist. it's also a fitting score because there's an almost star trek, psychedelic leitmotif that is used which works well with the alcoholism theme. john seitz's cinematography had some flourishes here and there, but it didn't blow me away. it's a good thing the film was in such capable hands since it's a story that easily could have turned to trite melodrama or, possibly worse, an unaffecting propaganda piece. as is, though, the film strikes a good balance and is able to convey rather accurately the allure and pitfalls of alcoholism. a very fine film. B+.

I Heart Huckabees - it's a fun film that sort of reminded me of an american version of "discreet charm of the bourgeoisie." first i want to mention that mark wahlberg may have been laughed at in the past, but when the guy gets a good role he nails it, and this film is no exception. it's easy to write him off as marky mark and just a good looking calvin klein model trying to crossover, but his work in this, boogie nights, three kings, and fear show he's better than he may get credit for. i think his biggest problem is taking shitty roles, but you can't blame a guy too much for that. the film is pretty light despite the potentially heavy subject matter. all the philosophy in the film has serious implications, but is used more as a comedic device than anything else. while i was watching it i tried to ask what russell wanted me to get from the film and i just didn't see it being a film about exploring different philosophical possibilities (like my dinner with andre or waking life). if one wanted then i'm sure one could glean something valuable from the different philosophies that are thrown about, but the film isn't really about presenting a cohesive philosophy of its own. there are surrealist elements to the film that make it fresh and different. the acting is also fresh and lively. there's no better way to describe the film than "fun." B.

Die Hard - i've watched this film over forty times and it's always been one of my favorites of all-time, but watching it this time was a unique experience. i'm in a very different mindset these days so i can't help but interpret everything in a different way. the dynamic between willis and bedelia was more vibrant and resonant than ever before. willis' bathroom soliloquy was more poignant, the laughs were more hearty, and the music was more stirring. in short, this time around may well have been the best viewing ever of this particular film. it's a film that begs to be watched repeatedly and earns it every time. it's a film that defines the very limit of the action/adventure genre, and maybe even cinema altogether. it's pretty difficult for me to overstate the place in my heart that this film holds. everything within the film is so seamless - the music (kamen is amazing, but so are mctiernan's choices - using the "aliens" piece at the very end, the incorporation of xmas music to help the setting, the bach, the beethoven, the run d.m.c.! just brilliant), the images (jan de bont's inspired camera movement and mctiernan's lively and unique (for the time) editing style), the performances (break out role for willis, yes, but also notable performances from bedelia, rickman, veljohnson, gleason and white) all come together in a perfect synthesis. and with al disarrio as the sfx supervisor you know that things on that front are going to be solid as well. there are some scenes where you can tell a process shot was used, but when you're not scrutinizing the film these effects are seamless and that's pretty remarkable considering it's a film from the 80s. i think that if you watch this film without having heard any hype about it (because hype always hinders a film) then you must like it. for me it's a film that i really can watch any time. many of my other top films (paths of glory, the graduate, the killing, koyaanisqatsi, boogie nights, etc.) require a particular mood, but this film doesn't. no matter what mood i'm in i can watch this film, and since i've seen it so many times it's like visiting an old friend. one of the best pieces of art of all-time. A+.

Forgotten - this film pulled a "dreamcatcher." it started off pretty cool and had a certain degree of potential, but then the aliens came into the picture and messed everything up. there are a few nice moments created and a few nice touches, but nothing good enough to save the picture from its second half. one of the nicer touches is that moore lays down throughout the film - sometimes on the ground, sometimes in her bed, but as the film progresses, and she gradually begins to discover the truth, we see more of her face when she is laying down. for example, early in the film she is laying in bed and her head is buried in a fluffy pillow so that we only see the left third of her face, later in the film she lays in bed and the pillow is less fluffy so we see about half of her face; at the very end of the film she is knocked to the ground and is laying her head on her arm so we are able to see all of her face. C.

Ju-On: The Grudge - spoilers. i went into this film thinking it was directed by the same guy who did ringu, i was wrong. this is done by someone different, but the films are remarkably similar. there's a lot about this film and the similarities between the two films to comment on and i'm not sure i'm going to get to it all, but here it goes...
the most obvious correlation between ringu and the grudge is that both are japanese horror films with american remakes. in the case of ringu the remake is directed by verbinski and is better than the original. in the case of the grudge the remake is directed by the same person and i've yet to see the american version (with sarah michelle gellar) so the jury is still out on that one. both have a fairly similar style, but then again so does "suicide club" which is another japanese horror picture that came out recently. it's interesting to see how different countries come out with a wave of good pictures of a certain type during a certain era. during the 80s there were several good spanish horror films, right now there seems to be a good number of iranian dramas coming out, in the 30s germany produced a good number of fine expressionist films, etc. there's a scene in ringu when the girl crawls out of the tv which is really creepy and part of its success comes from the way the girl is crawling - very low to the ground, inhuman, almost spiderlike. this film uses the exact same scare tactic, but in this film the woman is crawling down the stairs. actually, this was done even earlier in the uncut version of the exorcist. the grudge steals another technique from ringu - when some of the characters are seen on security cameras or have their pictures taken, their image is distorted. i suppose it's been done before ringu, but i was working off the premise that these were directed by the same guy. the rest of the film is just about equally derivative. there are all sorts of individual shots and scenes that may not have been taken directly from previous films, but, to use a euphemism, are part of the established horror film lexicon. in this sense the film was a disappointment - individual shots throughout and the ending in particular were all in films you've probably seen if you've seen a good sampling of horror stuff. like i said before, it's not that the director is directly ripping off a shot from this or that film, but a lot of it was stuff that had already been done before; and when i go to see an independent japanese horror film i go hoping for something outside of the mainstream.
this isn't to say that the film is bad or doesn't have its strengths. there are several genuinely creepy moments within the film. shimizu is able to create a feeling of claustrophobia throughout the film and periodically cashes in on this to good effect. unfortunately sometimes the execution feels a bit reserved, other times it falls into the "been there done that" category which i talked about earlier, and sometimes elements of the film are simply lost in translation. there were a few moments when the crowd in the theater (it was a pretty healthy contingent considering the film has been out for a while and it was a 10:40 show) laughed at something that wasn't supposed to be funny.
as the film wore on i realized it wasn't going to blow me away and it wasn't going to leave me as terrified as i had hoped. so i naturally started thinking of the film on levels beyond the visceral terror. in a way the film could be construed as a social commentary, and this is one reason why i'm especially eager to see what changes are made to the american version. the film begins with a sadistic father slaying his wife, his cat, and, presumably, his son. as a result the house becomes haunted and the family which inhabits the space afterward starts getting picked off by ghosts one by one. each person who gets involved with the family or with the case surrounding their deaths also gets picked off one by one. there are strong elements of isolationism (people hiding in their rooms with windows covered, hiding under their sheets, etc.), but at the same time there seems to be an undercurrent against helping each other. let me explain - no one is spared in the film - the people who run are killed, the people who try to help others are killed, etc. typically in horror films there is some way out - either stay a virtuous virgin or take a stand against evil or know how to kill the zombies or whatever; but that's not true in this film. the social worker at the beginning of the film goes to the house to help with an elderly woman, but as a result of her good intentions several people die. a police officer who tries to burn down the house also is killed. his daughter, who goes to the house with her friends because they heard it's haunted, flees the house because she feels uncomfortable. her friends die at the house and, later, so she does too, despite having the presence of mind to get the hell out of there. in other words, it's a pretty pessimistic film. i thought there might have been commentary on the isolation within japanese society, but there is no alternative offered so i don't know how well that idea hold up.
overall the film had some moments, but wasn't as consistently entertaining or scary as it could have been. C+.

Where The River Flows North - earthy like "tree of wooden clogs," but the film's organic pulse is very much 'american.' in tree of wooden clogs the earthiness is intertwined with the philosophy of earth has provider. conversely, where the river flows presents an organic film about two people living off the land, but to them the earth is less a provider and more a symbol of freedom and individuality. in tree of wooden clogs the earth is the provider for all the sharecroppers of the village. in this scenario they are working the land for the land owner, but there is never any animosity with the land. they work the land lovingly and respect its ability to provide wood for shoes, strawberries for the market, etc. in where the river flows the land also owned by someone else, but rip torn's character has a less loving relationship with the land. it is still a provider, but only insofar as he can use it to his advantage. indeed, his plan is to harvest the land of 1000 year old pines and skip town with the profit. in this film the land, and the opportunities it presents, is more intertwined with motifs of freedom and individuality. essentially what i'm trying to get at here is that this film presents the land as a tool (both for rip torn's character and the government which wants to build a dam in the area), whereas tree of wooden clogs presents the land as a provider to be respected and loved. also, i think there is an argument to be made that this film presents the issue of land use in more individualized terms and tree of wooden clogs presents a more collectivist view of land use. acting is uniformly good and the story is told in an engaging, entertaining and emotive way. B+.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow - the first thing everyone will notice about this film is its cinematography, or, maybe, its lack thereof. after all, is it really cinematography if you're just filming characters on a green screen and applying lighting and sets in post-production? so we'll just say it's the "look" that people will notice, and for good reason. it's a lot different from anything you've seen or are likely to see any time soon. another thing your likely to notice fairly quickly is how fun the film is. i would have liked to dislike the film because the technique (cgi constructed everything, except the actors) seems a contradiction to the subject (1939 new york), but the fact is that the look fits and the writing is good enough to wrangle in even the more cynical viewers (such as myself). sure it's a derivative film - it borrows or references films/serials/comics like crazy, but it does it the same way indiana jones or pulp fiction did - with love and reverence instead of cultural piracy for profit. i don't think that law and paltrow had great chemistry, but the writing did a good job of creating a chemistry between them. there was a good sense of humor between them, a checkered past that was touched upon, but not played out too much, and they never had to kiss each other which is the big test for on screen chemistry. the film's pacing is also well done. it's not overly methodical, but action sequences are spaced pretty evenly and are well-executed. it gives you only enough time to think about the mystery driving the film in short intervals before another action sequence, a change in plot direction, or a character development occurs. as a result the film moves along well and stays interesting throughout. B.

Japanese Story - if not for the heavy, 40 minute longeur on which this film ends, it would have been pretty good. the first half of the film establishes the relationship between collette and the japanese man she is escorting around australia. at first they annoy each other, then they end up fucking; and it happens about that abruptly. that said, it wasn't this that derailed the picture. eventually collette discovers that her companion is married, but that doesn't affect their affair...they go on having a happy time until he dives into shallow water and dies. the film has a few things going for it: 1) toni collette isn't all that great looking, but she's a good actress and the chemistry with her and Gotaro Tsunashima is pretty good 2) it's not "lost in translation." there are some cute, charming moments between the two and that's when the film is at its best - when it's just them bonding and interacting. like i said before, the downside of the film is the last 40 minutes during which basically nothing happens and the director tries to cash a check that's bigger than the amount she's earned in the first half of the film. that is, the first half of the film established a decent degree of humanity and potential sympathy, but the second half of the film tried tapping into that too much. and really, in a film like this, poignancy isn't about the length of the grieving, it's more about the effectiveness thereof. in the last two minutes of the film we get a clear example of this - collette's character reads a letter Tsunashima's character had written her with the intention of her reading it after he was on a plane back to japan. he speaks the letter in the form of a voice-over and what results is the poignancy and pathos brooks was after for the last 40 minutes. i understand that she may have been after some reality in the post-death portion of the film. firstly the death was quick, as most deaths are. secondly, there is a lot of post-death minutiae to be sorted out (incident reports, assembling his personal affects, cleaning his suit, shipping his body, etc.), but all this really should have been edited down a bit. incidentally, the last half of the film reminded me a lot of love liza which was mostly just philip seymore hoffman bawling and sniffing gas, but in that film there was a lot of comic relief to break the film up. it, too, ended with a powerful letter from beyond the grave. looking back on the film it's better than i originally gave it credit for...B--. p.s. just read some comments on imdb.com that indicate the original version was longer, apparently some scenes were cut, but i stand by my review - not enough was cut! also, why "japanese story"? it's more about her than about him and it takes place in australia...

Begotten - one of the most insane films i've ever seen. it's from the director of suspect zero and shadow of the vampire, neither of which really did it for me. this film, though, at the very least, had me thoroughly interested. the film has no dialogue and, according to allmovie.com, is shot on black and white reversal and then shot again onto black and white negatives. the end result is a very bleached and stark looking picture. the contrast between the white and black is very pronounced and there is a lot of visible grain in the picture as well. the look is a cross between a snuff film and the film within the film "ring;" and the subject matter is equally dark. apparently the "story" is about god killing himself, giving rise to mother earth, who impregnates herself with the dead god's semen, and she then gives birth to "son of earth." afterwards we see a group of trolls (which kind of reminded me of the creatures in star wars) torture the mother and son. it's not very easy to follow, in part because there is no narrative (no dialogue, no intertitles, etc.) and the picture is so muddled that sometimes you don't even know what you're seeing. it's a haunting film and one that probably takes a couple viewings to understand in any real way. the inclination might be to write it off as an artsy-fartsy load of junk, but there's both real art and real technique in the film. it's sort of the visual equivalent of a grindcore album, and as such it takes a certain degree of patience to see through the grittiness. i'll be the first to admit that it's not a very fun film to watch, but it's the kind of film i'll probably be thinking about for a while. B. p.s. i have no idea why i put this in my netflix queue, but i'm glad i did.

Hero - i don't know if it's going to be eligible or not, but if it is then this film should win an academy award for cinematography. when wizard of oz came out in 1939 color had been around in some form or another for more than 20 years, but still wasn't very popular. at the time the wizard of oz was probably the best use of color in a good film. i think that hero is almost as impactful today as wizard of oz must have been then. certainly there have been great uses of color in the last 65 years (ran, fahrenheit 451, adventures of robin hood, black orpheus, songs from the second floor, etc.), but this is a film that will not only be most remembered for its use of color, but will also (hopefully) expand the use of color into the future.
the story follows jet li, who plays an assassin, as he infiltrates the emperor's palace claiming to have slain the emperor's greatest enemies. at the beginning of the film captions tell us that every country has men who are willing to die for a cause (religion, country, money, etc.) and that these men are often called heroes, and that these men exist on either side of whatever conflict is at issue. immediately we get the sense that the film is aware of the relative nature of heroism, good, evil and truth. once li is inside the emperor's palace the story unfolds in unconventional time; at first li tells the emperor of his exploits over the emperor's enemies, later the emperor (having figured out that li is an assassin, not an ally as li claims to be) tells his own version of the events, as he imagines them. then li tells the story again, this time telling the true story since the emperor has already figured out li's plan. in each rashomon-esque telling of the truth the characters within the story are adorned in different colored garments; and in each case the color is befitting of the situation. in the first telling li portrays two of his enemies, who are lovers, as extremely emotional characters who are ultimately defeated because li is able to play their own emotions against them. during this telling of the story the characters are wearing red, which is a perfect match for the emotional nature of the sequence. the emperor counters with his version of the story, in which he portrays his enemies as less emotional, and more thoughtful warriors who live in the country. in this version of the story the characters wear blue and green - earthy, calm colors more befitting of the monkish lifestyle they lead in this version. the final version, the one li tells after the emperor has revealed he knows li is there to kill him, is the 'true' story and as such, the characters wear all white.
this is a film that benefited greatly from computer enhancement - from colors changing in the middle of a shot, to the wire stunts, to the hail of arrows -  the film wouldn't have been quite as impactful if not for the ability of the filmmakers to digitally enhance the picture.
other than the look, the film is pretty good. the acting and story are both good and the story, especially, adds philosophical layers to the film that make it more thoughtful and timeless than most action films. in a lot of ways this is the film crouching tiger, hidden dragon was purported to be.
unfortunately it's a film that revels in its excesses, and that becomes the film's ultimate undoing. there are many moments of brilliance, but the beginning takes a bit to get going and the excessively slow ending drags the film just after it had built to a great crescendo. that's one of the hardest things about film - unlike photography or literature, it's a medium of absolute pacing: each minute of the film is always one minute long, and with that constraint comes the artistic challenge of pacing. B+.
Big One - probably my favorite michael moore film (it's between this and roger & me). there are a lot of reasons why i like this one more than his others, some of them are lame and some aren't. the lamest one is because this remains his least popular film and i like liking something that's relatively unknown. it's also his only film in which both chris smith (camera) and sarah price (sound) were involved, and i like them because of american movie. i also like it more than bfc and f 9/11 because this one is an unadulterated documentary. ultimately, though, this is my favorite moore film because it's the most fun to watch. it's his funniest, his most laid back, and it still packs the patented moore punch. at the end moore is talking with phil knight and trying to get him to come to singapore to see the young factory workers, but knight rejects his offer. later moore suggests a foot race - if knight wins moore will wear nikes wherever he goes - if moore wins then knight will build a shoe factory in flint; again knight declines the offer. moore goes on like this, pleading with knight for some change in his bottomline thinking, but knight doesn't budge. it's a microcosm of moore's entire public life, and it's exactly what is so heart wrenching about watching moore's work. we know he's the good guy, putting up the good fight, but it hardly ever seems to do any good. since roger & me (1989), for example, we've gotten another bush in the white house, thousands more flint residents have lost their jobs and the city is in worse shape than ever, the exportation of jobs nationally has increased, the rich are still getting richer and the working class are still footing the bill. a truly great documentary. A+.

Shaun Of The Dead - it's a farce in somewhat the same tradition as scary movie or naked gun; though more subtle and reserved. whereas scary movie and naked gun go completely over-the-top with their parodies of horror and detective films, shaun of the dead hams up some of the zombie movie conventions without going over-the-top. there are several nods to specific films in the genre as well. in one scene the two main characters are on the phone with "barbara," who they tell to sit tight while they come over to save her. one of the characters yells into the phone "we're coming to get you barbara!" this is a reference to the first, great zombie flick "night of the living dead" in which one character is teasing barbra while in a cemetery - "they're coming to get you bar-bra, they're coming to get you..."
the first quarter of the film sets the baseline. we see shaun waking up, going to the corner market, interacting with roommates and coworkers. it essentially poses the question: who are the zombies? this question is partially answered as the transition to zombie nation is made. just about everyone around shaun starts turning into a zombie and he doesn't even realize it. he's so rapt in thoughts of his own interior world that the exterior world is merely a place in which he wanders, rather than being an integral part of his daily interactions. that is, his own life is so monotonous and regimented, and he is so thoroughly ensconced in his own world that everything outside of him goes unnoticed. the question is answered fully during the film's denouement which is mostly a series of clips from news programs that recap the zombie episode and its aftermath. we also see that shaun's best friend (think brad pitt in true romance), who was earlier turned to a zombie, remains an avid video game player despite his zombie state; in other words, despite being a zombie, little has changed. of course all this is done in a funny way, versus the cutting social commentary of the original dawn of the dead.
one thing that put me off a bit was the insertion of a couple heavy scenes in the film. there were a couple death scenes which i couldn't reconcile within the context of the rest of the film. usually farce films like this ham up the forced romance we see in these sorts of films, but shaun of the dead actually tried to play the romance and death storylines fairly straight. there were laughs before and after these islands of seriousness, but the laughs were generally outside of final goodbye or the "we should be boyfriend and girlfriend again because i really love you" scenes. the filmmakers either fell prey to the convention, felt they could get away with some touching moments, or i didn't pick up on the humor in these scenes. it's not that i'm opposed to serious moments in a comedy, but it felt misplaced in this film primarily because it's a film of farce and parody of the zombie genre. that minor quibble aside, the film was consistently funny and made with enough panache to keep it interesting throughout. oh, the two lead actors did a really good job and their apartment walls were filled with great music posters (funki porcini, amon tobin, saul williams, company flow, etc.) B.

Naked Kiss - like femme fatale, if this film was made in a vacuum it wouldn't be nearly as interesting. that is, so much of what made this film interesting for me was comparing it to the films to which is similar, but ultimately unlike. femme fatale is a film noir that twists the entire noir logic and philosophy on its head, somewhat similar to eastwood's unforgiven. naked kiss is similar to pulp and noir films, but draws a different conclusion than those films. it's the story of a woman who is a prostitute and finds herself in a small town where she decides to abandon her old lifestyle. unfortunately her flight to suburbia takes her no further from the dirty and sordid lifestyle she was trying to escape. like sirk before him, fuller paints a picture of twisted underbelly found just under the surface. i found fuller's methods of illuminating the depravity slightly less subtle and artistic than sirk's, but they were just as effective. naked kiss is different from sirk's films primarily because the style of naked kiss was much more towards that of a pulp film, as opposed to a melodrama. it has a grittier look, starts off much harsher and uses black and white photography instead of the lush color used in something like 'all that heaven allows.' this film gets as dark and depraved as anything i've seen sirk do, though the pitch was less gradual. the lead actress had a good performance, the best of the film, but it wasn't great. holding the film back were a few corny aspects which seemed to stem from fuller's optimism in spite of the depravity of the world. unlike kurosawa in rashomon, however, fuller was unable to vent his optimism in as a realistic, naturalistic or inspiring way. it's unfortunate, too, because there certainly were makings of a better picture here, he was just unable to pull it off as well as i would have liked. B. p.s. great use of music within the film. edit 9-22-06: spillane's writing style probably had more to do with the harsher style than fuller's direction.

Pather Panchali - though it predates it, this film reminds me most of "tree of wooden clogs," both in the way it's filmed and its subject matter. i liked both films, but tree of wooden clogs was a more moving and arresting film than pather panchali and i have no way of explaining it. both were foreign films taking place in small farm-based villages, both were organic verite-ish films, and both were good, but i just liked tree of wooden clogs more. i know that the apu trilogy (this is the first installment thereof) is a masterpiece of indian cinema, but i can't honestly say that i see that much to get excited about here. like tree of wooden clogs there is a definite emphasis on nothing in particular, in other words an emphasis on everything that is life. apu eating a mango and durga's death are given equal weight...not in the sense that they are seen as equal events, but neither is stated with more emphasis through the filming style. ultimately this is both the best and worst of films like this - if you're not into it, or if you have a short attention span then you're likely to be frustrated and not see the point; but if you're like me and you don't mind watching ordinary life unfold in a naturalistic film style then you're apt to dig this one. ray certainly has a gift for telling the story of characters through film, and it's a gift that can't really be learned. his cut-aways and edits are natural and smooth, but olmi's tree of wooden clogs does it even better. B.

Nightmare On Elm Street - not as good as friday the 13th, but in the same ballpark. the major defect of this film is that it was made right in the middle of the 80s which means it's got a certain amount of cheesy dialogue, bad acting, bad wardrobe, and poor soundtrack choices...all of which distract me from my ability to be scared. that aside, though, the film is pretty good. i felt that friday the 13th earned its scares a bit more because the direction was so good, and more subtle. nightmare on elm street relied a bit more on sharp editing and a certain degree of gore to achieve its effect, but both had their moments.
nightmare on elm street was more successful at weaving in social commentary that was friday the 13th. both had the cautionary tale element, but nightmare took its commentary further. its most general theme is a warning against escapism. more specifically this relates to the mother who escapes through the bottle, or the parents who divorce (escaping their failure), or the teens who escape through sex (wyss' character) or television/music (depp's character). of course this is all manifested in the form of killer dreams - face your demons or else. it's a commentary on our society that this battle must be waged in the deepest, most mysterious caverns of our mind. we have suppressed our problems and now there's no escaping them. the end is another mindfuck which i couldn't really make sense of. the protagonist realizes that she has the power to rid herself of the demons through a single thought, but the end suggests that nothing can ever return to normal. there is a fog and everything appears okay, but, in the end, freddy drives the kids off into the horizon and the mother is killed. perhaps craven feels that it's too late, even for the courageous among us. B.

Friday The 13th - i think part of the big success of this film is that it combines genres so well. it's part mystery, part cautionary tale, part college-aged sex flick, and, of course, part horror film. it's also a well-paced film. the first scene sets the stage for the rest of the film and grabs the viewer right away. i think there are two approaches to great horror - one is to establish some degree of normalcy and then smash it with the horror, and the other is to just come out swinging; this film falls into the latter category. i think horror is more successful when it gets you into a comfort zone, and then jolts you out of it. the dawn of the dead remake did this very well, whereas the original dawn of the dead started off in a state of chaos...though, to be fair, dawn of the dead is sorta meant to be a sequel to night of the living dead which did establish some normalcy before descending into the nightmare it became. a film can be successful regardless of how it approaches this issue, but in this instance the choice cunningham made was appropriate for the film and, really, that's what matters most.
texas chainsaw massacre is the first film like this that i can think of...20-something kids out in the middle of nowhere being picked off one by one. this theme got pretty big in the 80s for some reason, maybe because of a perceived immorality of the times or something. ultimately a lot of these films are cautionary tales - and friday the 13th makes this perfectly clear. the first victims are taken out during a make-out session and all the subsequent victims (except the groundskeeper) are libidinous college-aged kids.
from a filmmaking standpoint the film isn't amazing, but it's certainly worthy of some praise. the opening sequence is well-done. the music is great and original for the time, the freeze-frame technique didn't come off as cheesy at all; on the contrary, it was rather horrifying. cunningham established a subjective point-of-view for the killer in this first sequence and squeezed dividends from this technique throughout the film. there were times in the film where the cunningham would use a handheld camera to indicate a reversion to this subjective point-of-view shot and would creep up on a potential victim. but as the camera was walking towards the would-be victim, that victim would then turn towards the camera thus indicating that, in this instance, the handheld camera did not indicate the killer's point of view. it's the visual equivalent of raising, and tightening the music track as if an attack were imminent, only to subsequently lower, and loosen, the music; it gets the viewer on edge without racking up the body count.
similarly, cunningham would use misdirection within the mise-en-scene. in one sequence kevin bacon (yay) was getting it on with his girlfriend in a bunk bed. they were on the bottom bunk and the camera shows them having sex and slowly raises towards the top bunk to reveal a dead body laying right above them. shortly after the two lovers are done, she leaves the cabin to go to the bathroom and bacon is laying on his back looking at the bottom of the top bunk. at this point the camera is looking down on him. a drop of blood drips on his face and he wipes it off with his hand and looks at his fingers with bewilderment. quickly a hand reaches out from under the bunk and grabs his head. there is a cut to his profile and we see a knife come up through his neck and blood spurts all over the place. it might be the best scene in the film because everyone expects the action to come from above the bunk (where the dead body is), but it comes from under him and it scares the shit out you.
of course, as is true with most horror films, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit in this film. how did the killer get under the bunk? how did an old lady dispatch all these young kids so easily? how did an old lady throw one of the victims through a window? etc. so if you can suspend your disbelief a bit and are willing to be scared then this will do the trick. the ending is a bit of a mindfuck and i like it that way. B+.

Slacker - richard linklater's first feature length film is more a medley of vignettes than it is a proper film. it starts at dawn with the camera inside a bus with richard linklater as the sole subject. linklater gets off the bus, gets into a taxi and begins talking to (not with) the taxi driver about his dreams and the potential philosophy of dreams as alternate universes. after linklater gets out of the cab the camera continues to follow him until a we see a woman hit by a car by a young man in a car who turns out to be her son. shortly after this the camera follows the young man and the film continues in this manner; following people who are in some way linked to the person we were just following. i think that this structure serves several purposes, some practical and some artistic. first, it's an easy and inexpensive way to make a film. since so much of the film is following people while they're walking from one place to another, or, as it turns out, from one person to another, the film is shot almost entirely on the streets of austin, texas. as a result there is very little artificial lighting, probably zero constructed sets and only a couple crew members at any given time. artistically the film's structure helps reinforce one of the major themes - our interconnectedness. another major philosophical theme of the film is destruction as its own form of creation. not only is this addressed by different characters throughout the film, but the film itself is initiated by the death of the woman at the very beginning of the film.
if you want to get a better idea of what this film is really like then just think of "waking life" and "dazed and confused" mixed together. it's heavy on philosophy and features a lot of (mostly eccentric) young people feeling their way through life. whereas the tone of waking life is mostly somber and very pensive, this film, though also pensive, is more laid back and funny. some of the performances are stilted and i even caught a glimpse of a boom mic at one point, but overall it's a very well-written film with a good overall idea. linklater is, above all, a good writer and this film shows that as well as any of his others. also, i noticed that background elements of the film (street signs, background conversations, etc.) are carried through from one link to another which, along with the major topics of discussion, provides some continuity throughout the picture. worth watching. B.

Red Rock West- john dahl (joy ride, rounders) directs this modern noir sleeper set in wyoming. nick cage plays the hard-on-his-luck everyman from texas looking for work. he wanders into a bar completely broke where the bartender (j.t. walsh) mistakes him for another man from texas who he had been expecting. it turns out that the man from texas for whom the bartender has been waiting was supposed to do some work for the bartender. thinking things have finally turned his way, cage snatches the opportunity for work and assumes the identity of the man from texas, but it turns out that the job was a lot more than he had bargained for.
this is probably the best film of dahl's that i've seen so far. it's smartly written and well directed. the soundtrack was less than great, but it was all country (because of the setting) so that's understandable; it functioned well within the film so that's really what matters. i've sort of come to the conclusion that noir has to be filmed in black and white to be a true noir. there are some films that do a good job of replicating the noir feel, or aesthetic without being filmed in black and white, but i'm going to be old-fashioned and say it's gotta be in black and white to be a real noir. that said, this film, outside of the cinematography, does a good job of staying noir. it has the femme fatale, the twists and turns, and the everyman caught in a downward spiral of bad luck. the main thing is that it's just a good yarn and nicholas cage is good enough to carry the weight in any place that the film sags. B.

Prince And Me - amazingly enough the first thing that struck me about this film is the fact that it's made by a capable director. at the beginning of the film we are introduced to julia stiles' character and the prince who she will eventually fall in love with. they're both driving down completely different roads, in completely different countries, but the way it's edited suggests a connection between the two scenes. this is not only true because of the cross cutting, but also because of the fact that you have stiles driving left to right and the prince driving right to left. it's a small thing, but something that an amateur might not think to do. also, in films like this the tendency is to stay away from shots that are above or below eye-level...except at the end when romances tend to (over)use crane shots. however, there is a scene in the prince's mansion where he walks into a huge room where his parents are waiting for him. the director uses a low angle shot so we get an idea of the size of the room - we see the huge ceiling and all the artwork and detailing on the walls.
unfortunately the screenplay was your usual girl-can't-stand-guy-but-learns-to-love-him-and-they-both-change-for-the-better schlock. fortunately there were some moments of comic relief and stiles is a talented enough actress to sell her role to a fair extent. the soundtrack wasn't as bad as it could have been considering the demographic the film was appealing to. i thought that the ending was a bit long, it felt like it was supposed to end before it did. although i suppose you could say that's a good thing because it didn't end with them marrying and living happily ever after. julia stiles hasn't done a clunker yet. C.

Stepford Wives (1975) - this and the original rollerball were both released in 1975, and both had extremely bad remakes. this film isn't as good as the original rollerball, but like that film it's an interesting and entertaining film steeped in social commentary. stepford wives is about conformity, gender issues, technology, etc. it's remake is hardly about any of those things. the 2004 version, in fact, is supposed to be a comedy, but turned out to be more frightening than funny. frightening because it's scary just how far off the remake is in terms of the original's intent. again the same is true for both versions of rollerball - the original is a brilliant social commentary and the 2002 version is an action film that almost becomes the very thing that the original was condemning. you could call it irony, but i'd call it violence...the remakes of both these films do violence to the originals. it's like toby keith doing a cover of "the times are a changin'." katharine ross is great as an aspiring photographer/wife/mother. one of the many things that this film did that the remake did not, is create a smooth story arc. this version shows the oddities of the town and its citizens in small increments, so as to slowly crank up the fear and suspense. whereas the remake introduced the suspense in jolts, it's as if the original rolls down a steady decline, and the remake rolls down a set of stairs. not only was the original more subtle in its ratcheting up the suspense, but its suspense was more effective because it was played as a straight suspense/thriller instead of trying to be all things to all people (suspense, comedy, drama, romance). despite having a solid cast the remake wasn't very well-acted. again, that's because it tried to be too many things at once and didn't really succeed at any of them. i blame this on the direction and the writing more than i do on the cast. the original had mostly second tier actors, but was well-acted nonetheless. in addition to ross, paula prentiss and peter masterson have good performances. the score had some 70s rust on it, but once you get by the style of the time it was pretty effective. there were subtleties in the score throughout the film that added to the anticipation and sense of foreboding. within the first reel, for example, there is a piano piece that sounded pretty dated to my ears, but near its conclusion there are couple deep notes played that are subtle enough to go unnoticed, but subconsciously offer a foreboding tone to the stepford setting. overall a good film that could be remade like "invasion of the body snatchers" every generation to sort of update the themes and place the fear within a new context (for "body snatchers" it was 50s - communism, 70s - new age spirituality, 90s - break down of the family unit). unfortunately this film's remake was awful, took almost nothing from the intent of the original and only seemed to indicate that the new millennium is generation is more concerned with vapid films than real social issues. worth watching. B.
Raising Arizona - the only way this film isn't unique is if you compare it to other coen brothers films. i still have to pick fargo as their masterpiece, but this one is great, without a doubt. the first ten minutes of the film is voice-over setting the scene, and it's all very quickly paced storytelling. during this sequence there are some great shots - either because they look funny, or because they look artistic. nicholas cage looks great in this film. he's so perfect for this role. holly hunter is also great in her role. the coens, like all great directors, are able to consistently get career best performances from their actors. i'm not necessarily saying that cage and hunter had their best performances in this film (though their performances here are at the top of their respective lists), but i do think it's true for many of the secondary actors in their films. the coens are somehow able to capture their (diverse) settings remarkably well. in this film it's arizona, obviously, in the big lebowski it's l.a., in fargo it's north dakota, in ladykillers it's the south, etc. barry sonnenfeld's cinematography in this film almost steals the show. the wide angle lens makes the frame really active and it works to great comic effect. a pleasure. A-.

My Life As A Dog - i think saw this movie once when i was in like fourth grade and i also think i remember liking it. it's one of the few coming-of-age films that is actually effective. it successfully balances the trials and triumphs of growing up - in this film we are never too happy or too sad, but both emotions are felt with a depth that really does affect us. all the actors do a great job, especially the children who really are the most important part of the film. it reminded me of tin drum more than any other film, but isn't very similar in terms of style. my life as a dog plays everything straight, whereas tin drum is sort of a fantasy and the style is reflective of that. from a directorial standpoint the film succeeds because hallstrom knows to keep his hands off. it is sometimes said that "this screenplay is so good that even a good director couldn't screw it up." i think that saying gets to a problem that some directors have - their ego. hallstrom knows how to let the acting and writing develop on their own, and doesn't force the issue. he uses a subtle score that effectively supports the film, without dominating it. the same thing is true for the visual style. it's not entirely naturalistic, but it is enough so to retain the characters as the film's primary focus. there's one scene that i found particularly telling. the protagonist is sitting on the ground resting after boxing with his tomboy friend. both of them are about twelve years old and barely starting to discover themselves. she starts to take off her shirt while her boxing gloves are still on, and has trouble getting the shirt off as a result. it's a great scene because it clearly shows the awkwardness of growing older. a good film by any measure. B+.

What The #$*! Do We Know!? - like michael moore's last two films this movie's reviews are going to consist of 95% content review and, at best, 5% of film review. actually, this film may prompt a little more discussion of style and filmic-based reviewing because it's so unconventional, but i maintain that the vast majority of the reviews of this film will probably discuss the ideas presented in the film more than the way in which they are presented. it starts as a documentary with amateurish production and hints of the kinds of fictionalized recreations of the discussed ideas that you might see on a pbs show talking about a similar topic. the film deals with the essence of being and seeks to, in lay terms, explore the implications of modern quantum physics. it sounds very interesting and if pbs/nova had done it, then it might have been a very rewarding experience, but pbs wouldn't have interviewed a woman channeling someone from beyond. pbs would have also likely filtered out some of the more easily defeated material like the guy who says that if we really tried we could walk on water, or the water experiment conducted by Dr. Mu Shik Jhon (he took bottles of water, wrote different things on them and then took pictures of the water using a special microscope. it turns out that depending upon what was written on the bottle ("chi of love", "i want to kill you" etc.) the water would take on different molecular structures.)
but really it doesn't matter that much. the truth is that you're either going to believe this stuff or not, and all sorts of arguments can be made by either side. go here if you don't believe me. there are some reasonable arguments made by people on both sides. i think that you can liquidate either argument. one side could say that the science in the studies is bad for one reason or another, and the other side could say that these ideas supersede our normal conceptions of science and/or logic - that all logic is is our sad attempt to make sense of that which does not make sense...or one side could say that mavericks of the truth have always been outsiders and the other could just explain away their need to internalize and control the universe by saying it's a reaction to the increasing chaos of post-modernism....and even if the two sides agree on some "truths" (say, that there is one consciousness that we call god), there will always be debate about what this means, where this puts us in the grand scheme, etc. as for me, and my views on what was discussed in the film, i think about 80% of it was theoretical hogwash. a lot of it reminded me of the stuff that michael mercury is talking about when he says he sleeps on books so that he can soak up the knowledge while he's asleep. and even if it was 100% true, it doesn't matter all that much to me. the thing is that, for me, i can't ever convince myself of any Truth because i can pretty much always see the other side. as a result i just sort of plod along on the same path. it's both depressing and reassuring, i suppose.
back to the film...it's got plenty of documentary footage - interviews with people who are normally relegated to late night programs selling special tea that cures cancer, depression, aids and hair loss; or some "personal power" program that will make your life better in six weeks, or your money back. they discuss quantum physics and how the world is a lot different than we imagined it 100 years ago, and how it's probably different than we imagine it today. none of the interviewees are identified until the end when they are revealed to be mostly scholars, mostly from reputable universities. interspersed is the story of a woman, played by marlee matlin, who is a photographer. we see her at home, playing basketball, at work, etc. her activities parallel the documentary footage we are shown. so they'll talk about how there are multiple possible realties and it'll cut to her on the basketball court with several basketballs behind her. this is where the film really lost me as a viewer. it begins with documentary footage and the documentary footage is followed by visual reinforcement in the form of this fictional story. this indicated to me that i was watching a documentary that was going to have an academic tone, but the film strays far from this and it does a major disservice to the ideas that are presented. if i were the filmmakers i would counter this with "well, we were trying to achieve a visual style that complemented the level of shock that the subject matter brings. since it is such a jarring set of ideas that is being discussed, we sought to achieve a similar effect in the format of our film; thus you have the decidedly unconventional and genre-bending film that you see before you. thanks for the eight bucks." again, it's up to the viewer to decide whether they thought the format (along with the title) was playful and inline with the material, or if it was incongruous, off-putting, and unprofessional. i felt the latter for the reasons i already mentioned. and even if i didn't, i didn't think the fictional storyline was entertaining or enlightening enough to be enjoyable at any rate. so if you want my opinion on the film, as a film i give it a D+, and if you want a more objective opinion of the film as a stimulus for conversation then i'll give it a C+. but i really can't give it anything higher than that if not for the simple fact that i found the computer animation and shaman shit too damn cheezy. watch the matrix, donnie darko, or waking life instead. or read a book.
p.s. the music was just so-so, but i recognized the music credit (christopher franke)...turns out he was in tangerine dream which is pretty fitting.

Desk Set - funny enough 50s comedy feature spencer tracy and the better of the two hepburn sisters. my major comment about the film, unfortunately, is the conclusion it came to. first some background...tracy plays an efficiency expert and hepburn plays a reference clerk who is absolutely brilliant with numbers and facts. tracy is hired by the company hepburn works for to see if his new computer will be able to save manpower in the company, specifically the reference department. by the end of the film he has installed computers in the reference department and the payroll department. as a result everyone in the reference dept., including hepburn, is issued a pink slip. it's the most moving portion of the film because it conveys in no uncertain terms the logical progression of humanity's reliance on technology. the brilliant and lovable character that hepburn is, is suddenly without a job because the man upstairs wanted to save some money by using a machine, instead of humans, for his reference dept. but, like "adaptation," i felt that the film collapsed back over the brave ground it had just tread. the pink slips that everyone in the dept. got were just a computer glitch and the computer was just there to "aid" the employees because a merger was in the works and there was bound to be more work for them in the near future. so everything worked itself out just fine. i understand that it's a comedy and shouldn't have to be politically and socially conscious, but it took me there as a viewer and then backstepped so i can't just let is slide. in real life the computer replaced everyone's job in the department and the merger eliminated 40% more of the workforce. fucking rich people piss me off. C+.

This Gun For Hire - one of the things that can make a film noir great is the ability to, at each turn, make the audience think that things are going to turn out okay, and then slam the door in its face. this film is able to do just that. alan ladd doesn't get the lead billing (that honor goes to lake and preston), but make not mistake - he is the star of the film. he plays a loner hitman and we pick up the action just before he's set to do a job. he holds up his end of the bargain, but the man who hired him pays him in marked bills in an attempt to pin a robbery on him. ladd goes on the lam, but runs into the girlfriend (lake) of a cop (preston) who is after him for having passed one of the marked bills. little does ladd, or even preston, know, but lake has been enlisted by the government to do some investigative work on the man who paid ladd for the hit with the marked dough. it's quite a criss-crossed story, but it's all very easy to follow and very fun to watch while it unfolds. lake is sworn to secrecy because of the sensitive nature of her investigation, and she has no idea that the man she meets on the train (ladd) is the same man her boyfriend is pursuing. it's not as dark a noir as detour, but the ending is surprisingly affecting and certainly dark enough to qualify as a noir. the lighting is more subtle than it is in some noir and i made a note of looking into the cinematographer on this film. my hunch was right - john seitz did the cinematography for this and such films as invaders from mars, sunset blvd., double indemnity, sullivan's travels, and big clock. it's a crime that i've never heard of the guy. but i redeemed myself by finally looking into his work after watching this film. with sunset blvd and double indemnity i probably attributed the good lighting and camera work to billy wilder and the same is true for sullivan's travels and preston sturges. at any rate, this is a good film - ladd and lake do a good job, preston is capable; the cinematography is good even though it doesn't knock you over the head with its brilliance; and the story is well-constructed despite being a little far-fetched in places. B+.

Jerk - 2002 was the first year since 1979 that steve martin had not been in a film. with what did he follow up his hiatus?..."bringing down the house," which by all accounts, was a piece of crap. i hope he's able to crank out a couple more decent pictures before his fades away. novocaine was a good little picture. maybe the pink panther film will be good. regarding the jerk - in my book it's an unquestioned masterstroke. steve martin shares the writing credits with two virtual nobodys so i'm guessing it was mostly martin, either on the page, or through improvisation, who came up with the bulk of the comedic material. for example, i know that he adlibbed the part where he and bernadette peters are in bed and he's talking about how they've only been together four weeks, but it feels like nine weeks and three days....script aside, martin's acting is brilliant - he's such a good physical comedian and he pulls off the role so well that i could scarcely imagine the film without his involvement. don't get me wrong...carl reiner is a fine director and i like the four other pictures of his that i've seen, but this is clearly his best of the those that i've seen and i have to attribute the majority of its genius to martin. i can't really imagine people not liking this film, but apparently some don't since it has a 6.8 rating on imdb.com. it's the kind of film that i can watch any time and i'll always laugh. A. sadly the dvd is a 1.33:1 presentation, but the film is was originally filmed at 1.85:1.

A Walk In The Sun - clifford mccarty called this film the "most lyrical of war films" and i tend to agree. the only other war film that i can think of as being this slowly paced and thoughtful is another milestone film (all quiet on the western front) which is longer and more of an anti-war film than this one. it's not that this film was a pro-war film at all, but i certainly didn't get the distinct anti-war sentiments that i got from watching all quiet on the western front. death is treated in an understated manner throughout the film. there are only two battle to really speak of and a few men die with hardly more than a word acknowledging that fact. their deaths are not treated as examples of the horror of war, nor are they treated as martyrs for which the war must be continued, and won. it was an unexpected element coming from milestone. i've seen the film before, but i sort of slept through it the first time and didn't retain much. the majority of the film is spent on the time between battles and mission objectives. we get to know the soldiers in a way that most action/war films don't approach. the dialogue is both naturalistic and philosophical. in some ways it's one of the most realistic war films i've seen. B+.

Open Water - pretty much exactly what an indie film should be. it's basically a "blair witch project" in the ocean, but it's not just a knock off, and even if it were it doesn't much matter because the film is so good. there will probably be some spoilers ahead... the film follows a yuppie couple on their island getaway. we get to know them for a little while and then, while scuba diving with a group, they are left alone in the middle of the ocean. that's the gist of the plot. it's low concept filmmaking at its best. the film is shot using dv and it perfectly matches the style and subject of the film. i'm sure it was more of an economic decision than anything else, but knowing your economic limitations and changing the way you shoot the film shows that you know what you're doing. you don't try to shoot ben-hur on dv, and the filmmakers clearly understood that.
by far the most important aspect of the film was the hook. if the couple didn't have an onscreen chemistry, and if the filmmakers didn't establish some normalcy from the beginning then the rest of the film would have suffered greatly. shots of the couple in bed, brushing their teeth, etc. all pay their dividends in the second half of the film. simply put, this film had me rapt in anticipation as soon as the couple got into the water. i think that some people will be put off by the ending, but that's more a function of what viewers have come to expect from thrillers than anything else. a recommendable film. B++.

Garden State - garden state not only refers to the setting of the film, but also to the condition of the protagonist; at least i think that's what he (writer/actor/director zach braff) was getting at. the film is about braff who is a mentally confused twenty-something actor who is isolated from his surroundings. naturally he meets a girl (natalie portman) who changes all this. it's a story that's been done a million times, and was perfected in 1967 in "the graduate." so, what does "garden state" have to offer? the acting is good, the soundtrack has a few good tunes, the writing is mostly good - some of the heavier moments could have been a bit more naturalistic, and the visuals are sometimes good. you're going to read a lot of reviews that call it an amazingly moving piece of work and you'll read some that call it a nice try, but not original enough...the truth is that it's somewhere in between. the ending is the usual fare and i don't think it's entirely earned. there are some inspired moments and some unique characters and some good writing, but it's not an amazing film in any way. B-.

Decline Of The American Empire - same director as barbarian invasions and it doesn't add much to that film. basically a french-canadian version of friends and sex in the city. there's enough intellectualizing going on to keep it above those shows, but it still boils down to your basic comic drama about middle aged intellectuals and their sex lives. for me, films like this have a limited potential. i'm just not able to empathize with people who fuck everyone in sight and then have regrets about it later. i guess europeans and canadians are just more sexually liberated than i am so i just don't understand it. i know a lot of white trash people who make frequent appearances on "cops" who are also "sexually liberated" in the way that we see in this film...i guess it's just something i'm doomed to misunderstand. to a certain extent the characters know what they're doing, but they think it's completely acceptable. civilization is based on lies, one character says, and this, along with an extreme degree of horniness, is what drives otherwise normal characters. the film does approach the topic without pulling any punches and is technically well put together. there are moment of decent comedy, but i found myself laughing less and shaking my head more. C+.

Who's That Knocking At My Door? - scorsese has five (so far as i've seen) certifiable masterpieces - taxi driver, mean streets, raging bull, casino and goodfellas. this film i would consider above gangs of new york and bringing out the dead, but below the aforementioned fab five. it was his first feature film and you can see him experimenting all over the place. this is both the strong suit of the picture and its ultimate downfall. he experiments with editing - both in terms of mixing up time to enhance part of the current action (decline of the american empire does the same thing) and to be stylistic...a few times he edits a sequence in a way that replays one part of the sequence a few times at different speeds or from different angles - much in the way an action director might do during a critical action sequence. he toys with music quite a bit - paving the way for his best usage of music in casino...sometimes he'll cut out all incidental noise and leave just the music and the images and sometimes he'll use music in a more typical montage sequence. the dialogue in the picture is naturalistic as always, but the broader strokes of the screenplay definitely could have used some refining. there's a lot going on in the film and i'm reviewing a day after i've seen it so it's hard to recall everything, but suffice it to say that it's a decent, though flawed, film. really it's just scorsese feeling in the dark, trying to find his style. unlike 99% of upstart filmmakers though, scorsese takes his experiments in all sorts of different directions and experiments recklessly rather than in a reserved, uninteresting way. as a result he was able to become a genuinely unique filmmaker later in his career. B-. edit 9-22-06: go ahead and add aviator to his list of masterpieces.

Five Obstructions - a documentary that follows directors lars von trier and jorgen leth in an experiment dreamt up by von trier. leth made a short film in 1967 called "the perfect human" which features a man and a woman in separate sequences doing things like shaving or eating or dancing or just standing. i've never seen it in its entirety, but i gather that it's a sometimes humorous look at human nature and a slew of other related topics. von trier's idea follows in his dogme style of creating obstacles, or obstructions, in order to either create a better film or flex one's filmmaking muscles. so von trier makes leth remake his own film five different times with different limitations that von trier imposes on the project. in the first obstruction he instructs leth to use edits of no more than 12 frames (half a second), to make the film in cuba without building any sets, and to answer the questions that are posed in the original film. each obstruction is a response to the last film that leth creates. so, after leth remakes the film under the first set of rules von trier sees that leth worked very creatively under the conditions, but kept a critical distance from his subject. as a result von trier's next set of obstructions is aimed at getting leth more personally involved in the material. at each turn, though, leth creates a film that is good, but not what von trier is looking for. in each instance leth is able to circumvent von trier's objective through ingenuity and creativity. as leth puts it: "it's like a tennis match." von trier will serve hard down the line and leth will try is best to return the serve. it's fun to see how von trier tries to confine leth in different ways, and how leth is ultimately able to work the limitations to his creative advantage. the first two obstructions are geared towards limiting leth's technical options. the third gives leth free reign. the fourth requires him to remake the film as a cartoon (a medium both filmmakers despise). and the fifth obstruction removes leth from the creative process almost entirely - von trier will direct the remake using documentary footage of leth, and then crediting leth as the director of the picture.
it's an interesting film for people who are into film and the creative process behind filmmaking, but i don't know that there's enough of a "human interest" type of storyline to keep others interested. B.

Hands On A Hardbody - a simple, but surprisingly effective documentary. the film follows about 20-odd contestants as they compete for a nissan truck somewhere in texas. the object of the competition is to keep your hand on the truck longer than any of your competitors. it's an extremely simple concept, but the film is somehow able to capture the natural drama that unfolds amongst the competitors. one of the women who makes it into the final four is this super religious lady who keeps listening to sermons on her headphones and is able to gain strength through the lord to continue. you'll have to watch the film to see if she wins, but i will tell you that the competition is pretty tense by the end of the film. i think a major success of the film is its ability to convey the length and harshness of the competition. at the beginning of the film i thought that 87 hours (which is what was required two competitions prior to the one being filmed) was a pretty long time, but not all that out of reach. however, as you see the competitors steadily dropping out because of physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, delirium, and other maladies, it becomes clear just how hard the event really is. i stayed up about 60 straight hours once to write a couple papers and i remember being pretty delirious at the end of that marathon. i also had the luxury of being able to sit, or move freely as i saw fit so it's not at all comparable. a pretty fun film to watch. B.

Nil By Mouth - it amazes me how you can make a film that's basically just a british indie film equivalent of "cops," and be lauded by film critics across the globe. the film's style is self-consciously indie to the point of annoyance, but that's just my interpretation. like 21 grams, the film feels far more affected than affecting and that kind of film bothers me just as much as the mindless hollywood schlock. my dad says that i should give hollywood films an automatic deduction in my grading because they have more resources at their disposal, i think the exact opposite. because they have the unfortunate hindrance of being backed by people concerned only with money they are at a distinct disadvantage to relatively independent features such as this one.
in the majority of the scenes the camera is obscured by objects in the foreground when the subject is in the mid/backround. it's a style that is supposed to support the gritty, unclean feel and theme of the film. it's effective, but it's become so trite that to use it as much as oldman does shows a lack of real, singular artistic vision. instead he is just emulating a style he's seen dozens of times before, and that's one of my major problems with this film. the other being the subject matter. there are ways of showing this subject matter in an entertaining, engaging,  or interesting way, but oldman only occasionally employs them. i was interested on some level for the first 45 minutes of the film, but so little progress - in the story, in the characters, in the feel or themes of the picture - is made that i became disengaged, and once that happens the film is essentially over. i steadily became less and less interested in the british version of white trash that i see anytime i turn on FOX. i found nothing redeeming about the characters or their struggles, and i had no meaningful emotional experience with the film. i didn't think too much of the score, and disliked the way oldman filmed the musically driven interludes. also, not that i cared, but the film used the word "cunt" about 120 times, "fuck" about 200 times, and "bloody" 0 times. i thought the british were fond of "bloody," but i guess oldman would know better than i. the performances were very good, but not good enough to salvage the film. C-.
Songs From The Second Floor - this is a remarkable film. i can't honestly think of where to start...i suppose the first thing that struck me was the visual style of the film. interiors (with the exception of home spaces) are colorful and clean, exteriors are generally dirty and cluttered. interiors are also shot entirely on an angle. the sets are constructed in such a way, or the camera is placed in such a way, that we almost always face a corner. if you're watching a play then the back wall is parallel to your viewing angle, but in this film the room is rotated about 90 degrees so that the bottom of the back wall runs diagonally - rather than horizontally - through the middle of the screen. this choice allows for an amazing amount of depth within each composition. depth of field isn't emphasized very much with the use of a wide angle lens, but this doesn't detract at all from the depth that these interior compositions has. this element alone makes the film interesting to watch, but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. every shot is thoughtfully composed, and needs to be because the camera doesn't move at all. remarkably, i didn't even notice this obvious fact until about 30-40 minutes into the film. i think this is a result of the great energy that each composition has; or maybe i'm just trying to save face.
to take a step back, the film is a comedic surrealist drama. that description coupled with the fact that it's a swedish picture would likely scare off most viewers. i'm not generally a fan of surrealist film, but this one isn't over the top, or completely nebulous. sure, there is little sense that is made over the entire course of the film and there are seeming non-sequitors within just about every scene, but somehow it all works - either comedically, dramatically, or artistically. that, i'll admit, is just a matter of opinion so you'll have to see it to decide for yourself...there are certain motifs that are visited throughout the film...love, loss, home life, isolation, de-humanization effect of economics, etc.
also, while interiors are generally fairly colorful, people's faces are generally extremely white...and not just because they're swedish. at some point it is implied, or maybe revealed, that the people we are observing are dead, and this certainly would be supported by their dead looking skin color and the surreal nature of their environment. a great film for those who are willing to give it a try. B++.

Twin Warriors - directed by the master of 80s/90s kung fu cinema, yuen woo-ping, this film stars two certifiable international stars in jet li and michelle yeoh. it's amazing how good yuen woo-ping really is. when you're watching a film he's worked on you can almost always tell. the first time i saw "buddhist fist" i remember thinking that the choreography was amazing and i found out later it was directed by yuen. as much as i like master of the flying guillotine or bruce lee films, the choreography just isn't as inventive as it is when yuen as at the healm. he's also a fine director. in this film he uses a wide angle lens to great comic effect, which (visually) reminded me of films like dead alive and raising arizona. i was a bit skeptical of jet li as a lead in a yuen film since he likes to use comedy to a great degree, but li is able to pull it off...not as well as jackie chan, but well enough. a lot of yuen's stunts revolve around using props in all sorts of inventive ways. in this film he has one scene with two people fighting on a wooden tower. as they are throwing kicks and punches at each other they are knocking out logs that support the structure, it ends up like a large scale jenga game, but more exciting. there's another scene in the film in which li is having an epitome while studying tai chi. it's a great sequence because yuen is able to visually represent the ideas of tai chi in an original and funny way. yuen also has a great creativity when working with wires. i just don't see kung-fu films use wires in the same range of ways that he does. his editing style is similar to most kung-fu films in that he'll have a mid-long shot of an action sequence up to the point of impact and then cut to a closer shot showing the impact or reaction. it adds energy to the sequence and allows for greater control of stunts and strikes. the down side to this is that you have to pre-plan this otherwise you won't have the necessary coverage. for a director like yuen, though, this isn't much of a problem - he generally has the needed coverage. i've only seen four of yuen's directorial efforts (snake in the eagle's shadow, iron monkey and buddhist fist being the other three), but i think he's great. it's hard to say which of those films is his best or his most definitive, but this one's certainly in the running in both categories. B+.

Marty - a charming little picture. it was actually a surprising picture in that it wasn't your typical hollywood love story. going into the picture i thought it was going to be your basic "lovable loser gets the girl" type of picture. in its broadest stroke it is that kind of picture, but the finer strokes were somewhat surprising. the film, as manifested in marty's friends, was more crass than i would have expected; marty's mother and family were far less supportive of his finally finding love interest than one would expect from a "feel good" movie; the film's pacing was far slower than expected; and the ending, though upbeat, didn't exactly ring of "happily ever after" and wedding bells. from a story point of view the film was compelling for its ability to establish each character as a vector acting upon marty. at the beginning everyone in the film is pushing on him from the same direction, towards the same direction. by the end of the film all the characters have changed their positions and are pushing marty in almost the exact opposite direction. within this interplay of characters comes some interesting commentary, or at least exploration, of family affairs and dynamics. by the end of the film marty sheds the urging of his friends and family and strikes out a path of his own. like i said before, we are left happy, but the ending isn't conclusive in its outcome. rather than a marriage proposal or something equally dramatic, marty merely decides to continue dating a girl he's only seen once before. it's hardly a stirring development in most films (or in everyday life for that matter), but because doing this is contrary to everything that has preceded, it becomes the most important moment in the film. it's a solid, low concept film that focuses on character development and interaction to create a touching and entertaining picture. B+.

Last Samurai - dances with samurai is what they should have called it. from what i remember this is pretty much the same outline as kevin costner's dances with wolves, which came about 13 years earlier. tom cruise overextends himself here, but it doesn't much matter because the direction and screenplay overshadow his shortcomings. both fall into triteness repeatedly enough to distract the viewer from cruise's inability to fully capture his character. watanabe, who garnered an academy award nomination for his performance, is good, but not that good. the more films like this and gangs of new york that i watch, the more i realize how great hollywood is at making excellent productions. the set design, costumes, etc. were all excellent in this film; unfortunately that doesn't make for a great film. hans zimmer's score was strong enough relative to the rest of the film's elements, but, again, did come off as trite from time to time. films like this are safe and meant to garner as many academy/golden globe awards as possible. unfortunately that means that we get to see basically the same picture over and over again with the occasional surprises from pictures like the lord of the rings. C.
Predator - for a long time i thought my dad and i were the only ones who thought of predator as a great film, not just a fun movie. this and die hard are likely the most watched films in my life. i've seen this a couple dozen times and die hard about 40 times. when i was younger i had both of them on tape and i'd watch them all the time. based upon the dvd text commentary and the special edition treatment the film has gotten, however, it appears that we were not alone in our love of this film. as an action film it's great fun, the story is basic and slim, but somehow always unfolding in a manner to keep the viewer engaged.
from an audio/visual standpoint it's such a fresh and layered film that one can help but be immersed in the action. it's not just that the film is layered, it's that it does it in such a new way. at the time this kind of stuff just wasn't being done. the infrared camera, the jungle sounds, the predator's sounds and design, mcalpine's cinematography, all create a dense and artistic audio/visual landscape. all of this, though, stems from john mctiernan's vision. this was his first real feature film, but he had a very clear idea of what he wanted this film to be, and it was executed very well. mcalpine (who was also the cinematographer in other visual feasts such as moulin rouge and romeo + juliet) films the jungle in such a way that it becomes its own character. mctiernan didn't move the camera quite as much in this film as he did in die hard, but the camera is still active enough to add further life to the film.
i don't know if it's by luck or design, but mctiernan is somehow able to find great scripts. die hard is the supreme example, but predator is also very well-written. it's got some classic one-liners, and the broader brush strokes of the film are also intelligent and engaging. in the text commentary a good point is made about the story arc of the film...rather than getting more complex towards the end, as most films tend to do, predator strips itself down to a primal confrontation of two warriors. they're not even fighting for good vs. evil or money or a woman or any of those conventional things. one is the hunter and the other is the hunted and that's all it is. another broad stroke that i find interesting is the way in which we are slowly introduced to the predator. i can still remember, barely, the feeling i had when first watching the film and trying to understand what the predator was. at first we don't see it at all, then we see the world through its eyes, then we see its translucent silhouette, then its lower body, then its entire body, and at the very end it takes off its mask.
i also have to comment on the score which really seals the deal on this one. alan silvestri (back to the future trilogy) does a fantastic job on the score. it perfectly matches the size of the film - it's not overly epic, or, conversely, too small. it's instantly recognizable, but not recycled...it's right where it needs to be. what a great film. A.

Gangs Of New York - dear martin scorsese, i write to you because i recently saw your latest filmic effort "gangs of new york" and couldn't help but be disappointed. could you please watch goodfellas, mean streets and taxi driver again just in an effort to reacquaint yourself with truly passionate filmmaking? i found the subject matter of the film to be mildly interesting, and i know that it (new york) is a subject that is near and dear to your heart, but i found your film to be dishearteningly mainstream. the fresh vitality that your earlier films had in spades, and your later gangster pictures (goodfellas and casino) also exhibited, was sadly lacking. daniel day lewis is a fine actor, and looks the part, but he just didn't have that much of a captivating performance despite the fact that his character was the most interesting of the lot. i found the casting choice of leonardo dicaprio to be poor, not because he's generally a bad actor (on the contrary, he has quite a few solid performances), but rather because he didn't look the part. my personal opinion is that you cast him more for his star power than his being right for the part. in the past you put together solid supporting casts, and in this case there was a modicum of talent, but it was misplaced, or underutilized. john c. reilly is a great actor, with good range (chicago, boogie nights, magnolia...all different roles), but i found him to be a less that grand choice in this film. brendan gleeson, on the other hand, was a good choice in his role, but he wasn't used enough. he has great power onscreen as i'm sure you know from watching 1998's "the general" and "28 days later..." i don't want to berate you, or this movie, too much because i generally enjoy your work (though i could have done without "bringing out the dead"), but i am concerned because i see your latest efforts going in a troublesome direction. this worry of mine is only strengthened when i see trailers to your newest, yet to be released, effort which also features dicaprio...though i do hold out some hope since it's about howard hawks who is a fairly interesting film subject (though it's already been done by jonathan demme in "melvin and howard.") sorry, i digress...i can't say i understand what it feels like to be nominated for four academy awards and come up short each time. i'm sure it's begun to wear on your soul, but pandering to the academy with films like "aviator," "gangs of new york" and "kundun" isn't the way to go. i haven't seen kundun, but at this stage i must admit i'm weary. don't get me wrong, i'll check it out, if not for the simple fact that philip glass' score is bound to be better than howard shore's on "gangs of new york." although i generally like howard shore it was clear that he gave you his b-grade material on this score and saved the good stuff for the lord of the rings trilogy that he was working on at the same time. i'd like to close this note to you on a positive note - i have been truly moved by the majority of your work so i hope you take the above as a constructive criticism from a fan and friend. i think that you're probably due for an academy award sometime soon so please put out fresh, passionate and well-crafted films instead of pandering to the academy. i'd hate for your career to start looking like that of speilberg. your friend, chris miller. C-.

Collateral- for me every michael mann film i see from now on will be measured against "heat" because that's clearly his best work, and a modern masterpiece. thought collateral doesn't match up to heat, it is a solid rebound after the mostly uninspiring "ali." jamie foxx and tom cruise essentially carry the film, for if it were not for there solid performances, the film would have been a bit flat. my biggest complaint about the film is the law enforcement aspect of it. in heat al pacino is the perfect counterweight to deniro's crew. in this film, though, the cops aren't nearly as sophisticated or played by the same caliber of actors. the film needed some sort of device to squeeze the action that is occurring with foxx and cruise, and the police subplot was a sufficient tool towards that effect, but i didn't feel that aspect of the film was executed as well as it should have been. about three quarters of the way through the film things get a little contrived and a bit conventional. some of the action and style seems a bit stock and un-mann like. however, mann quickly rights things by ditching the police, and refocusing the film's attention on foxx/cruise.
andrew sarris comments that the (john) fordian hero knows why he is doing something, but not how to do it. the (howard) hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing, but not why. and the (raoul) "walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. he is always plunging into the unknown." without getting into that broad statement too much here, i will say that jamie foxx represents the fordian hero and cruise represents the hawksian hero. it's not just that cruise is eminently qualified as a killer in the film, it's also the philosophical discussions the two have throughout the night. foxx certainly is a precise character, but to no avail. his proposed business hasn't gotten off the ground, and he's been driving as a cabbie "temporarily" for 12 years. foxx is clearly the ideologue who also happens to be inept in long-term life. cruise, though, is completely able in whatever he does - whether it be his profession as a hitman or posing as a lawyer or as a jazz connoisseur. but unlike foxx, he doesn't have a driving force behind his capable mind and body. in this sense the film creates a great duo that is worth the price of admission alone.
the film's style is also noteworthy. it struck me that in some ways michael mann may be the west coast version of martin scorsese. though i haven't really thought about it in much depth the theory is supported by some minor points: mann's films often feature urban protagonists who live outside of the mainstream, similar to scorsese's work. in some of mann's films the landscape becomes its own character, much in the way that the old neighborhood is itself a character in scorsese's films. in this film two things struck me about the style. first was the filming method being used - it looked like a cross between video and dv, but better quality than either. it looked grainy, but not like a 16mm film, it was more of a digital grain. turns out he used hdtv cameras in the filming to achieve the look. i like the choice. sure he could have used dv or even film and had decent results, but the camera he used gives it a big budget quality (unlike 28 days later...) while maintaining a grainy, documentary look that supplements the feel. video does seem to have its aesthetic advantages from time to time. a lot of the exterior shots, particularly around the cab, were...not quite good looking, but somehow they had a unique style and visual impact. i can't really describe it. some of it was the camera and some of it was the lenses he was using because there were a lot of shots that had an odd sort of deep focus or, conversely, a sharp focus on the foreground. i can't really describe it, and i don't know why i liked it (other than the simple fact that it was different) so i'll just leave it at that.
early in the film he also has a lot of shots of LA which is similar to scorsese's "taxi driver" which features voice-over and shots of the urban cesspool. with heat and collateral mann sold me on thinking he was from LA. in a lot of ways mann shoots LA better than tarantino shoots it in jackie brown. in those two films you really get a sense of the city, and the landscape comes more to the foreground than it does in most other films (probably because so many other films are shot on backlots anyway).
despite a couple of lapses the film is solid all-around and visually interesting. foxx and cruise both advance their careers - foxx by adding a third (ali and any given sunday being the other two) solid, serious film to his filmography; and cruise by showing (again - remember magnolia) that he can step outside of the good guy role.
interesting note: this film begins in an airport and ends on the railway; heat begins on a railway and ends in an airport. B+.

actually, forget my review this imdb.com review from donnyzona (Donnyzona@aol.com) is better:
"Cruise was excellent as VINCENT THE ASSASSIN!!! He was so ruthless and mean that you actually FORGOT he was TOM CRUISE!!! His hair was gray! They only strange part was when Cruise went to the NIGHT CLUB and pretty much took out anybody he wanted. I was surprised at that. The acting on Jamie Foxx's part was almost as good as if Will Smith would have been cast. Jamie Foxx is a poor man's Will Smith, but he's still good. Hard to transition for this poor guy (from a comic to a ACTION STAR).
Anyway, the goods were delivered and the suspense NEVER LET UP. The ending was good but ended a little to strangely and no climax either.
Believe it or not, I rooted for Cruise the ENTIRE TIME."

Tree Of Wooden Clogs- this film's style reminds me of a cross between the godfather (because of the colors) and kiarostami's work (because of the pace, texture and sound design). the opening shot is of a field of tall grasses and we know right away that this is going to be an organic film about earthy matters. the film's visual style, particularly its earthy color scheme, reinforce this fact. at just shy of three hours the film is remarkably slim on plot. in an averagely paced simpsons episode there would likely be an equal amount of plot in the first seven minute act, as there is in this entire film. that's both a testament to the quick storytelling of the simpsons, and the slow, plotless, drive of this film. but, as you know if you've read my reviews of the few iranian films i've seen, i'm not averse to a lack of plot. what drives the film is the characters and their interactions with the land and their neighbors. the film's trailer says the film follows three families, the netflix synopsis says four families are the subject of the film, and allmovie.com says five families are followed. hmmm. i didn't really keep track, and it sort of depends upon whether you count the newlyweds at the end of the film as a separate family. but i digress.
the film's texture is amazing. kiarostami, and iranian cinema in general, have a similar texture and i think a lot of it is owed to the way they mix the sound. it's as if the microphone is on the ground at all times. first, i should note that most of the sound work was looped in during post-production instead of being done while filming. every step in the film can be heard, and is usually high in the mix. to me this technique grants an extra layer of texture to the film. it makes the film all the more tactile and real when you can hear the dirt and rocks crunch under a person's footsteps. since the film is about three/four/five families of farmers, this sound design makes perfect sense. if it were a victorian period piece, the same sound design would be misplaced.
somehow the film was able to completely draw me into the farmers' way of thinking. about two hours through the film there is a single shot of a cluster of bees on a wall, rather than associating this image with danger (a typical response within a typical film), i immediately associated it with a honey treat. in this way the film was able to get me thinking of nature as useful and friendly, instead of an enemy which must be conquered. it was a subtle response, but a telling one.
besides the importance of nature, major themes addressed include the intertwined nature of life/death, the importance of community, and religion. it's a good film, and even though not much actually happens in the usual sense, it addresses, directly and indirectly, all sorts of universal concerns. unlike "princess and the warrior," this is a film that on paper probably looks rather unimpressive, but in its filmed state is actually quite a stunning (in its simplicity) piece of work. B++.

Office Space - a modern comedy classic. perhaps the last great proletariat film of the 20th century. everyone knows how good mike judge is as a writer, but watching this film over and over you start to see that he actually has a knack for directing as well. there's a scene early in the film in which the protagonist is walking into his cubical to get ready for the day's work. judge employs an overhead shot to strengthen the theme of confinement. it's a small touch, but it works pretty well because all we see are walls surrounding livingston's character. had he chosen an eye level shot we would have seen over the cubical walls and the effect would be lost. small things like this also serve a secondary purpose - they liven up a film and give it a freshness that would be lost if shot in a strictly straight-ahead style. judge, like hughes before him, uses unrealistic sequences to mix up the style and add an extra dimension to the film. my favorite example of hughes employing this comes in planes, trains and automobiles when john candy is driving the car between two 18-wheelers and momentarily appears to steve martin as a devil. judge also mixes things up with well-directed musical sequences (one when they're planting the virus and another when they're destroying the copying machine). at any rate, this is a great film that stays funny after multiple viewings. A.
Stalag 17 - "at ease, at ease!" this is a pretty great film by all accounts. the most obvious comparison is to the great escape because it's the other popular p.o.w. camp film. as strange as it may sound, i think this film is easier to like because it's lighter, tighter, and more charming. that said, i think that the great escape is better. like stalag 17, the great escape has comic relief, but is able to stroll the entire range of human emotions in a more meaningful and impacting way. stalag 17, on the other hand, deals with very real issues of death or pent up sexuality, but does so in a very humorous way so you don't really feel their impact as fully as maybe you should. i tend to give the edge to a film that allows the viewer to experience a greater range of emotions, and that's a big reason that i rank the great escape higher than this film. this may be a flaw in my critical approach, but it's i think it makes sense to reward a film for being able to do a wide range of things well. i'm not saying that a straight comedy like "planes, trains, and automobiles" will always be less of a film than a film that dabbles in several genres, but i do give the edge to the great escape because the films are similar. all this is almost a moot point though because stalag 17 is so good at what it does. i don't want to give the impression that stalag 17 is a straight comedy because it isn't. there are some serious moments, but it's clearly more of a comedy than it is any other genre of film.
so far as i've been able to tell, billy wilder's strength is in making good films, rather than being a great director. the difference, at least to me, is that a great director elevates the work with their direction, composition, and visual style. billy wilder certainly makes good films, but i can't recall seeing a film of his that was enhanced that much by his visual style. i mean this more in the way of observation than as a slight of some sort. being able to consistently write and create good films is an art and skill of its own, but i can't honestly say that there aren't a dozen other directors who could, given the same cast and screenplay, come out with equally good results.
but back to stalag 17...it's a great film with a great cast of characters (another fine william holden performance, his best?) and a great screenplay. the score is capable, but isn't as epic as bernstein's in the great escape. there are plenty of classic lines and moments. certainly worth owning. A-.

Evil Dead - i think you have to view this film knowing it's an independent feature. if you don't contextualize the picture in this way, and compare it to the shining or a feature horror film today then you're doing the film a disservice. of course contextualizing a picture is always important to a certain degree, but i think that's especially true with this picture. i also think that if you watched this for the first time in 1981, by yourself in a dark theater then the picture would be truly disturbing and horrifying. of course now the film has evolved to the point where it can be viewed either as a horror film, or as a camp film perfect for watching with a group of friends. i think it's a testament to the strength of the film, but some may see it as a weakness of its intentions as a horror film. the best aspect of the film is its visual style. the camera is almost always in an unfamiliar place - either on the floor, or in the ceiling, or in the cellar. the depth of field in the picture is also amazing and adds a real vitality and dynamism to it. if they had chosen to use it a little more sparingly then the horror aspect of the film may have been stronger, but i think the i like it the way it is and there were probably economic considerations as well. with evil dead 2 raimi and company left no doubt what kind of picture they were making - it's pure camp and comedy. it features many of the same camera moves and visual ambition, but uses bruce campbell as a comic force instead of a whimpering everyman. fyi: joel coen (half of the coen brothers) is an assistant editor in this film. the commentary by raimi and the producer is mostly anecdotal and doesn't have much information about the filming or vision they had for the film. i think this is partly due to the fact they sort of flew by the seat of their pants during production. a great film, but evil dead 2 may be even better. A-.

Dark Passage - bogey and bacall back together. first the bad - the direction and chemistry between bogart and bacall were both inferior to the brilliant "to have and have not." on the upside, this film was more creative and, plot-wise, more interesting than "to have and have not." one of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the world that is portrayed in the film. at times it is dark and hopeless, but other times it's only because of a kind soul that the protagonist (bogart) is able to get by. in one instance bogart is saved from capture because of a lauren bacall's character who hides him in her car, but, we find out later, he wouldn't have been a wanted man if it wasn't for the dark intentions of agnes moorehead's character. later on there are a couple characters who are neither good nor bad, but still have a very important impact on bogart's fate. in this sense the film creates a world that can be both bitterly cruel and angelic, but one in which bogart's fate is always dependent upon another. for the first hour of the film we don't even see bogart's face. a lot of the time the camera uses a subjective point-of-view because bogart's character gets plastic surgery half way through the film and his appearance is drastically altered. after the surgery he's in bandages, so we only see bogart for the last 40 minutes of the film which is pretty amazing since he's the lead of the film. i can't think of many films in which the lead character is unseen for the majority of the film. there's more diegetic music in this mystery-noir than you can shake a stick at. there's some occasional illogical direction from daves. there'll be a shot with two people facing each other a certain distance apart and the next shot will be from a different angle and have them in a different position. small stuff like that crops up a bit, but overall it's an ambitious film with good acting, a smartly written screenplay, and an interesting and engaging premise. B+.

Village - not as good sixth sense in any way. it's less scary, the ending is less shocking, and the relationships are less intense. but that's what shyamalan gets for having such a great debut film. on its own the village is a fine film. it's shot well, tells a fairly compelling story, and the acting is up to snuff. i found a lot of correlation between the village and america in a post-9/11 world. view the film with that in mind and i think you'll understand what i mean. i'm not saying that the film is allegorical, but it is applicable to our current state. stylistically the film was more interesting than i remember his others being. color played a big role and part of that was the fact that he limited the use of certain colors (specifically red). as a result when red was used it really popped. the camera did a lot of moving in and out of a scene. i'd venture a guess that 75% of the camera movement was in three-dimensional space i.e., forward and backwards instead of left to right or up and down. when the camera takes on a subjective point of view this sort of movement is normal, but otherwise it's not done that frequently. in the village shyamalan employs this movement quite a bit and i think that it's an attempt to bring us into the story a little bit more. the first shot is of a funeral and the camera is looking over the shoulders of the townspeople. in this shot we are observing, but slowly the camera brings us into the action with the forward motion and this movement is used liberally throughout the film, i think, for this same purpose. technically a good film, but not as compelling as some of shyamalan's other work. C++.

Touch Of Evil - though flawed, touch of evil is an inspired and visually interesting film. the story took a while to really inflate to the point where things were interesting and charlton heston as a mexican just simply doesn't work. i think the strength of the film has to be it's visual style - it's one of the darkest looking films i can remember. it occurred to me that if orson welles hadn't done his 'war of the worlds' radio address, or been one of the finest directors of all-time, he'd be known as one of the best actors of his time. he's a pretty amazing talent. i liked a lot of the lighting in the film because, not only is very moody and atmospheric, but it also has an oddly singular look. i've seen plenty of noir before, but somehow this film is lighted in a way that makes it look different from most of the other films with shadowy landscapes. i don't know what welles did, but in some scenes it looks like he used a single, powerful light source so that the scene was well lit, but filled with shadows. in other films it looks as though they just dim the lights, the result being less contrast between the lit and non-lit areas. i like the effect because it will reveal one side of a character's face completely, but the other side will be in total darkness. despite the style i was unable to really get into this film. i've tried a few times now and it's never interested me all that much. i will say that i found it most interesting this time, but still not consistently enjoyable. at the same time it's hard to give this film a bad grade because it's so good technically. oh well. C+.

To Have And Have Not - i fell in love tonight. the object of my affection is lauren bacall. sure, i've seen a couple bacall films before (though not this one), but today was the first time i really saw a bacall film; or bacall for that matter. rather than make this entire film review about lauren bacall, i'll summarize by saying that in this film bacall is more sexy than any other actress i can recall having seen in a film. perhaps there have been hotter women in film before, but seeing bacall in this film made me forget all the other women; she's that foxy. and it's not just about good looks, it's about her presence. from her first appearance on the screen she steals the show - she's cooler, even, than bogart, she's talented, she's sexy, she's all woman. her first appearance on the screen is an interesting one because the camera is following bogart as he's walking down the hall and into his room. bacall is staying in the room across from his and we catch just a sliver of her as she exits her room, and he enters his. most people probably wouldn't even catch this as her first appearance, but it is, and it's brilliant because when i saw that sliver of her body i thought "is that lauren bacall?...who is that woman?...when am i going to get to see her next?" that's good filmmaking right there, and it wasn't a mistake - i'm sure hawks knew exactly what he was doing. it reminded me of a technique polanski used in the over-rated horror classic "rosemary's baby." there's a scene in that film where the old lady neighbor (who turns out to be a rather unsavory character, but to this point seems very friendly) goes from one room to the bedroom to make a phone call. the protagonist is pregnant and needs a good doctor, the old lady offers to call someone she knows for her. the camera stays in the hallway and the old lady sits on the bed to make the phone call. the camera is perfectly positioned so that the audience can see only the back half of the old lady as she sits on the bed making the phone call. the technique, in this instance, makes the audience want to sort of peer around the doorway which is blocking the other half of the old lady, so that we can see the rest of her. in that film it's a good way of hinting that the old lady has something to hide. in this film, seeing just a glimpse of a good looking woman makes the audience eager for her next appearance; at least that's the intention - and it worked for me.
really, though the film is about more than just the stunning and brilliant lauren bacall. there's also other stuff in this film. like lauren bacall's dress at the end, or the little dance she does moments before the ending of the film, or the way she looks at bogart. all those things are also high points of the film. okay seriously....i'm going to buy this movie tomorrow so i can experience the illustrious and breathtaking pulchritude of bacall at a moment's notice. whew. i've been reduced to school boy status by this film, it's really amazing.
at any rate, the film does have strengths beyond the goddess lauren bacall. in this film bacall and bogart have a chemistry rarely matched in the history of cinema. generally i'm not a romance film kinda guy so i don't look forward to the parts of the film where the two lovers look deep into each other's eyes, say something corny and then kiss, but in this film it's entirely different. i'd have to see casablanca again, but i think that the chemistry in this film is even more powerful than that created in casablanca. in casablanca there the entire film had that relationship as its focus - their past, sam (the piano player), etc. were all used to add another dimension to the relationship between bogart and bergman, so, in that respect, the relationship in casablanca was stronger. but in terms of onscreen chemistry, i think that "to have and have not" did an even better job.
bogart, not to be out shined by bacall, is also great in this film. he plays the straight-shooting, quick-talking, able-bodied, street-smart good guy so well that you almost forget the character can exist outside of him. in actual fact, it rarely did at this level. again, not to be outdone, you have walter brennan who i grew to love from watching rio bravo (also penned by jules furthman). i've only seen a small handful of his films, but this guy always stands out in a film - no matter the size of his role. in this film he has a supporting role as an alcoholic who tags along with bogart. between the three stars and the direction of the picture you have quite an amazing film. add to that the sharp and often funny script and you have a classic of forties cinema with three of the finer performances of the period. and all this goes without mentioning the plot which features international intrigue, political upheaval and a budding romance. A-.

Stagecoach - the only ford film that really captured my attention and respect upon first viewing was "grapes of wrath;" everything else either took multiple viewings, or has yet to intrigue me. i didn't immediately like the searchers or the man who shot liberty valance; i saw about half of the quiet man and wretched; my darling clementine was good, but didn't strike me to be as amazing as most seem to think it is; they were expendable, too, didn't inspire to jump with joy. i came around on the searchers and the man who shot liberty valance, but have mixed feelings on the others i mentioned; and now i can add stagecoach to that unfortunate list. i know the guy was talented, i can see it in most of his pictures, but for some reason i don't see him as a brilliant filmmaker. that said, looking back on this film's elements i can see why it's considered great. let me first say that i think it's a better written film than it is filmed. searchers and grapes of wrath had much better cinematography, in my opinion, than stagecoach. so far as i know this is the first great western and i suppose that should count for something. ford certainly should get some recognition for his overall effect on one of the most important genres in american cinema. i liked the ensemble cast and the well-drawn characters from john wayne as an outlaw on the run to the southern gentleman who almost betrays us all near the end of the film. stagecoach also has a good amount of comic relief and action to draw upon, which makes the film far more multi-dimensional than i would imagine most westerns of the time were. i can see stagecoach as a landmark film because of what it did relative to its time, but from a technical standpoint i don't see why this work would be considered "genius." kurosawa called ford "the master" and welles said he studied "stagecoach" extensively when preparing to direct "citizen kane" (a fact i didn't know until just now). certainly i saw some nice shots, including plenty of shots that included the ceiling within the frame (something citizen kane is often credited with doing to great effect). B.

Lady Vanishes - stylistically speaking it's a sort of unconventional hitchcock film. actually i take that back - it's indicative of his early work, but unconventional relative to his later, more well known, work. i don't know what film acted as his pivot from the old style hitchcock to the new, but it probably happened around the time he moved from the UK to the USA (1940). this film is similar to later films like rear window, lifeboat and rope that find the majority of the film taking place in a setting of limited space. in rear window it was an apartment complex, lifeboat was on a lifeboat at sea, rope was in a penthouse apartment, and this film took place primarily on a train. i like the technique because of the claustrophobia that it provides - in all of these settings there is no escape for the characters. the film showed some elements of later hitchcock. one scene after the protagonist gets clunked on the head comes to mind. hitchcock blurs the screen a bit and superimposes different images on each other to create a dazed effect. he's big on using imagery of this sort to disorient the viewer, or at least to convey the feeling of disorientation. it's a similar style to the one he employs when he shoots one of his famous dream sequences. the salvador dali collaboration in "spellbound" is the one that most quickly comes to mind. at any rate, this film is as intriguing as most of his work and shot with enough style to keep me interested in that respect. it doesn't show the same level of visual ambition that he demonstrated at his peak (vertigo), but it's a well-written and well-executed film nonetheless. B.

Night Of The Demon - i hadn't even heard of this film until i checked peggy cummins' (gun crazy) filmography. gun crazy and night of the demon were her best known pictures according to imdb.com so i figured i'd check this one out. the film is also directed by jacques tourneur who did "out of the past," which i watched recently, and co-stars dana andrews who was in "laura," which i also watched recently. so this picture seemed like a good choice. i was expecting the kind of cheesy horror film that might come at the end of a person's career, but was pleasantly surprised by this picture. tourneur's direction in "out of the past" is good, but i wasn't blown away by it. his direction in this film, however, yielded more impressive shots and sequences, the sum of which make for a well done picture. i don't think that the picture itself was better than "out of the past," but i do think that tourneur's direction was more impressive. there were some truly artistic shots, great lighting, and very effecting (read: scary) scenes. that said, some of the story was a little underdeveloped and the acting didn't trump that seen in "out of the past." nevertheless, despite the appearance of the cover art, it's a solid horror flick with plenty to sink your teeth into. B. p.s. the film is also known as "curse of the demon." there is a second cut of the film that is 13 minutes shorter, this review is for the longer version.
Door In The Floor - sort of a cross between "the graduate" and "spanking the monkey." it's able to combine drama and comedy pretty well and the story revolves around a high school aged boy who has the hots for kim basinger. i think that the funny moments were more funny than the poignant moments were poignant, but both worked pretty well. the boy is played by jon foster, whom i've never heard of. despite being relatively new he's the star of the film and probably does an even better job than jeff bridges and kim basinger. the young daughter, played by one of the precocious fanning sisters (yes there's another one), is also good. a sexual coming-of-age film like this can have the tendency to peter out about half-way through the film. door in the floor, though, is able to keep moving forward by making subtle changes to the characters and their interactions. a small change in a character or two can change the dynamic of their relationship which then changes other relationships within the film. sometimes films stagnate and aren't able to find ways to change the character interactions in a believable and interesting way; this film doesn't have that problem. it's got two (at least former) A-list actors so it's somewhat surprising to see this playing in independent cinemas. i'm glad it is though because it may provide some welcome box office funds for smaller theaters. a worthwhile film. B.
Thelma And Louise - it's a female version of a cross between easy rider and vanishing point. i think that the acting in this picture, though is probably better than it is in easy rider because fonda and hopper seem like genuine hippies so i don't know how much acting was actually going on. sarandon and davis both have career performances in this film. it's a great opportunity because unlike other great performances (of the kind we're used to seeing from whiny boy sean penn), these performances are about a range of emotions. rather than being confined to the crying and yelling side of the spectrum, davis and sarandon are able to smile, laugh, have fun, and be braggarts and fugitives equally well. there's enough plot to support the two-plus hour running time, but i'm not sure it was all needed - a bit of trimming might have made it a bit stronger. the ending was more poignant the first (and only other) time i watched it (12 years ago), but i still think it earned the right to be a little heavy at the end. scott didn't extend the slo-mo too much and that's a good thing. a good film with two great performances. B.

Good, The Bad, And The Ugly - the last 30 minutes of this film is pure cinematic power, i just had to get that out of the way first. now let me start at the beginning and try to keep this short...the title sequence - there aren't many films that have a title sequence that is worth mentioning, but this is one of them. not only is the opening theme amazing (morricone at his undeniable best), but the red, white, green and other colors over the faces of the three main characters just looks so striking. it's a memorable title sequence. each of the three leads turns in a great performance and really embodies the character like only great actors can do with great characters. eli wallach has probably the best performance of the three because his role is tougher and more dynamic, and likely has the most screen time.
roger ebert points out in an essay that comes with the dvd that much of GBU is about what is just outside of the frame and then shortly becomes apparent with a movement of the camera. he makes a good point here about the visual portion of the film. it's not a new technique that leone employs, but it is a unifying motif of the film - something that is there, but is unseen until leone decides to show it. this doesn't just happen visually within the frame, it also happens plot-wise with the characters. the best example of this is that each of the characters has a piece of the puzzle needed to get the 200 thousand dollars - wallach and van cleef know the cemetery where the money is buried, but not the grave, eastwood knows the grave, but not the cemetery. in this sense what they don't know is just as important as what they do know. visually the same thing holds true when, for example, we see eastwood laying on the ground at the foot of a boot. assuming it's wallach's foot eastwood grabs the boot in an attempt to trip wallach, the camera pulls back and we see it's just the boot with no foot in it. the camera pulls back some more and we see a bucket of water that eastwood obviously desires, the camera pulls back some more and we see wallach is washing his bootless foot in the water. leone reveals each part of this scene piece by piece to make the impact greater. had he chosen one long shot that showed the entire scene then we wouldn't have been as impacted by each disappointment eastwood experiences. i also think that this motif of leone's relates to another theme of the picture - relativity or fluidity of truth. everything is relative to whatever is in the frame, or whatever leone is showing us. the terms "good," "bad," and "ugly" are all relative to each other. eastwood's character isn't all that good when you consider some of the killing he does or the fact that he leaves wallach in the desert for no apparent reason.
the film's score is simply one of the best in film history - it's the very definition of epic, but has some lyrical passages as well which operate well in the sequence where wallach is getting beaten for information by van cleef's goon. the dvd transfer makes the film look and sound like it would have at its premiere. it's a criterion level release so if you're at all interested in this film pick up this version asap.
the good, the bad and the ugly is an epic and visionary masterpiece by a master of cinema. it's not the best film of all-time, it's not flawless, but it is an inspired work by a truly visionary auteur and for that reason alone any fan of film should watch this picture. watching this film for the first time may very well be like listening to ornette coleman's "free jazz" for the first time. in a lot of ways this film's style is that much different than the westerns that had come before it. A.
War Room - anytime you can get this close to a public official you're in historical territory. "crisis" and "primary" both followed JFK, one during the democratic primaries (i'll let you guess which one) and the other followed him while he was actually a sitting president (a documentary first, and as far as i know, only). both those films, though, run at just under an hour. war room is a feature length film that follows bill clinton's campaign in 1992 to oust george h.w. bush. the film could have easily been twice as long and i would have eaten up every bit of it because this stuff is endlessly interesting to me; i've seen the film a few times now and it never gets old. pennebaker and hegedus are the directors of the film and they're both veterans of documentary cinema, to varying degrees. pennebaker made the classic bob dylan film "don't look back," and hegedus went on to make "startup.com" which i enjoyed even more than the dylan film. i talk a lot about films as historical documents and that's naturally even more true for documentaries (duh). but this film goes beyond that generalization of films as documentation of a social/political pulse, and it does that because, like startup.com, it was in a very interesting and important place at the right time. it probably won't be anytime soon that we get this candid a look at the inside of a winning national campaign - how it thinks, how it functions, how it responds, what drives it, etc. if you're at all interested in politics this a vital film. A-.

Boogie Nights - an absolutely great picture. p.t. anderson has a gift for making films and this one may be the greatest testament to that fact. if you look at the inserts he uses early in the film to establish location and mood you see that filmmaking is just as much an art as it is a technique. when we're at dirk diggler's home, for example, and we first see his family we are introduced to the location by brief shots of coffee being poured and bacon cooking on a pan. immediately the audience gets the sense of suburban americana. anderson contrasts this with what happens over breakfast in the next couple minutes to establish the fragmentation of the traditional family. of course this theme is reinforced throughout the film, perhaps most shockingly in the case of william h. macy's character who ushers in the 1980s with a bang. which brings me to the acting...it is uniformly excellent, even mark walhberg turns in an inspiring performance in a very demanding lead role. secondary and tertiary actors like john c. reilly, burt reynolds, luis guzman, julianne moore, heather graham, don cheadle and philip seymore hoffman all turn in career performances. the cinematography in this film is amazing. camera movement is abundant and adds all sorts of vitality and fluidity to the picture. the pool party scene is especially great. but without the excellent musical supervision some of the longer scenes would appear a little flat. anderson expertly weaves musical pieces into medleys of his own. again, this adds a flow and vitality to the picture that makes 150 minutes seem much shorter. martin scorsese's "casino" is the film that most resembles this one, but where scorsese's film had a noir overtone to it ("casino" begins at the end, is fatalistic, and employs voice-over narration), boogie nights is an ultimately uplifting and life-affirming work. anderson's optimism is similar to that of kurosawa - both acknowledge the ugliness of the world and choose life in spite of that ugliness. it's a film that has everything and does everything. it's a wonderfully assured opus from one of the great storytellers and filmmakers of my time, and i hope he continues to operate on anything close to this level. A+.

My Dinner With Andre - a pretty great film. probably the first thing that most people will talk about with this film is its structure - it starts rather simply with wallace shawn (most famously as the mastermind in "princess bride") walking down the street talking about himself and the fact that he is not looking forward to having dinner with an old friend named andre. the rest of the film is the two of them talking over dinner about life, philosophy, theater etc. i wouldn't call it a slow film because, to me anyway, the subject matter is very interesting, but it's certainly not a conventional film. there are cuts and it does avoid (barely) simply being a filmed play. that said, i didn't find much artistry to the technique behind the cutting or the sets or anything other than the acting and conversation. it's quite possible that you'll find the film boring and unexceptional, but i think that most people reading this will receptive to the ideas presented in the film, and for this reason alone the film is worthwhile. there is a lot of philosophical ground that is covered in their discussion and the philosophy of theater, and life as theater, interacts with the structure of the film rather interestingly. in this way the film reminds me somewhat of the speech that sardu gives at the beginning of "bloodsucking freaks" wherein he questions the viewers' (within the film) motives for wanting to see such a freak show. of course he is really talking to the people who are watching the film, which itself is a freak show. at any rate, it's a finely layered and thoughtfully constructed film which addresses a lot of core life issues. anyone remotely interested in questioning life should probably watch this film. if, however, you tend to question the playcalling of phil jackson more than the purpose of life, stay away because you'll just be bored. B++.

Big Clock - ray milland and charles laughton (ruggles of red gap) star in this noir crime-thriller. one way in which this film is different from the other noirs i've seen is that the protagonist is not only a good guy, but is somehow able to escape death/prison by the end of the film. in most noirs you have the protagonist who willingly (double indemnity) or not (detour) committed some atrocity for which he must pay later. usually this atrocity is murder/theft and usually he does it because of a woman (whether coerced by a woman (double indemnity) or in order to be with a woman (detour)). big clock begins towards the end, as most noirs do (usually to establish the fact that fate is inescapable), where our protagonist finds himself in a bit of a jam. as the film plays out we find that he's thought to be a murderer when he really isn't. the bad guy(s) still gets his due by the end of the film, as is the staple of all film noir, but the difference here is that our protagonist isn't guilty of anything which adds a different twist to the conventional noir tale. throughout the film there is a definite emphasis on the importance of time - especially for laughton's character. i think that of this is, at least in part, to emphasize the ever-steady march of time, especially as seen by laughton's sudden death as if to indicate the fleeting nature of life. in this sense the film reminded me of a far lesser film called "the last minute" by stephen norrington (blade) which is about a character so obsessed by how much time he has left in life that it consumes him to the point of shortening it. there are a few other notable actors who have bit roles in the film - George MacReady (paths of glory), douglas spencer (double indemnity, thing from another world), and harry morgan (M*A*S*H, inherit the wind). surprisingly the film also goes against noir conventions by having a relatively healthy dose of comic relief. this film noir is still noir, but it's not the same dark world that we see in more prototypical pictures like asphalt jungle or detour. B+. ....forgot to mention that i noticed another noir convention while watching this film - double indemnity, this film, and one or two others that i've seen recently have played with music in/out of the film. for example, there will be a piece of music playing in the background and we assume that it's part of the score, but at some point a character will turn off the radio or close a window signaling to the audience that the music was in the film, rather than over it. a similar technique was employed in "carnival of souls." in that film i think it reinforced the fact that the protagonist was the author, i'm not sure if the same is true for noirs that employ this technique.

Double Indemnity - this is the film noir to which i compare all film noir. not because it's the first (citizen kane or maltese falcon probably get that honor) or even the best (kubrick's "the killing" is better), but because it's the quintessential film noir as i've come to know the genre, and because it's one of the first films that i knew as a "film-noir." i think it has the second best femme fatale (marie windsor is even better in the killing) and probably the best script. the story has plenty of double-crossing and has a strong narration thanks, mostly, to raymond chandler. billy wilder's direction is straight-forward noir - shades are always drawn, shadows are heavy, etc., but i didn't like it as much as kubrick's direction in the killing or even lewis' direction in gun crazy. edward g. robinson provides a great secondary character. i wonder how much of film-noir's bleak world philosophy is pure and how much is a result of the production code of the time that required bad deeds be punished. when i think about it i don't think the production code had that much of a bearing on how films were written, but i do wonder how many films would have allowed the thieves to get away with it in the end if not for the code. anyway, i like it the way it is - the darker and more awful the ending the more i enjoy it. i think that if you combine the snappy dialogue of this film with everything else in the killing you have the perfect film-noir. double indemnity is constantly moving forward so it never gets stale, but it's sort of an unofficial rule of mine that a film-noir should be under 100 minutes long, it just seems like a good length to get in and get out. i suppose this film would have been the headliner at any theater at the time so they probably got some slack in that regard, whereas "gun crazy," which had b actors and probably got second billing, would have been under stricter control length-wise. watching films like this makes me happy because in some weird way, despite having definite conventions, they are so alive and fun to watch. A.

Gun Crazy - even thought asphalt jungle was vintage film-noir and had everything running on all cylinders, it didn't have some of the touches that gun crazy has. i've seen gun crazy a couple times, but i don't think i ever appreciated it as much as i did this time. i've never heard of joseph lewis, much less seen any of his other films, but this guy knew how to direct. the camera moves, the staging of the characters and their relationship to each other, the storytelling - everything works in this film. there are a couple montage sequences that fill the viewer in on events quickly and efficiently. in one sequence the couple get married, go to to a jewelry store, go to a casino and then goto a pawn shop. within those thirty seconds of well-scored film we know everything we need to know about the (bad) luck of these two characters. there's another sequence that follows the couple on a couple heists across the country in one of the shots they are holding up a gas station and in the window there is a sign that reads "easy pay plan." touches like that make a good film great. john dall (who also stars in hitchcock's "rope") and peggie cummins play their parts well. i think john dall is another good actor who went sort of unnoticed...he was in only eight films, but i've liked his performance in the three films in which i've seen him. the script in this film isn't as sharp or slick as some of the other noir scripts (double indemnity is the yardstick in this regard) i've seen, but it produces some good lines...she asks why they're getting tired so quickly while running away from the law and he says it's because of the altitude (they're in the mountains, similar to the ending in high sierra). i like that line because it's true on the literal level, but it's also indicative of their situation - running out of air, nowhere to run, etc. another scene i really liked was when she was trying to get him to go out for another score. he was at the door and she walks over to him and asks him not to go, and to do another score so they could afford the kind of lifestyle she requires. she moves to the background and lies down on the bed. generally laying down would mean a submissive position to the person standing, but at this point, in this situation, she has even more power in the conversation than before. this demonstrates the sexual power that she exerts over him in their relationship. of course the film is rife with sexual undertones since he has a fetish for guns, but hates to kill anything with them. in other words he loves an object despite despising the very thing it is made for. as you can see the film operates on several different levels scene by scene and over the entire film. it's also a wonderful film to watch. it's short, exciting, tense and the epitome of great film noir. i can't honestly think of anything wrong with the film. next to the killing and double indemnity this may be my favorite film noir of all-time. A. tomorrow i'll finish off my recently purchased film noir boxset by watching "out of the past."

Asphalt Jungle - so yesterday i saw the set-up which was directed by the guy who did The Day The Earth Stood Still and today i saw the asphalt jungle which co-starred sam jaffe who was in The Day The Earth Stood Still...i like it when those things happen unexpectedly because it means i'm more likely to remember these people. "crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor." "Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit." "People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that's not exceptional, that's usual. It's the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had... just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over." though the script isn't as good as the one for "double indemnity," this film clearly has some great lines - some are just clever or funny and some encapsulate the noir-aesthetic perfectly. i also like the one from "out of the past" that goes like this: "[Kathie is playing roulette] Jeff Bailey: That's not the way to win. Kathie Moffat: Is there a way to win? Jeff Bailey: There's a way to lose more slowly." but back to this film...asphalt jungle is an undeniable classic and it's easy to see why. i don't think that in 1950 it set any great new standards, but it synthesized a lot of aspects of the genre really well...it's got the heist, the femme fatale (more than one really), the philosophy is perfect, some of the shots are wonderfully noir, the script is great, it incorporates both newspaper men and a private investigator (both noir staples) and does it all seamlessly and in an entertaining manner. john huston is one of those directors with a sickening portfolio (in chronological order): maltese falcon, treasure of the sierra madre, key largo, asphalt jungle, african queen, moby dick, unforgiven, casino royale, and annie. and those are only the ones that i know to be great, there are surely plenty others that i'm not aware of. watch it. B++.

Set-up - the first film james edwards (black parking lot attendant in "the killing") ever appeared in. he's not very well known, but he's a good actor so i figured i'd mention him. film noir is one of the rare genres that produced great films consistently, even when they received second billing. this film is a pretty good example of a film that probably was considered a b-film and probably got second billing to third man, or something similar. but like i said, just because it's a second billing film doesn't make it second rate and that's partially thanks to the genre. sexploitation films or horror films, for example, are much easier to botch in comparison to Noir films. and though the film lacked a-list talent for the time, some of the people involved in the picture (wise, edwards and ryan to name a few) went on to do better things later in their career. to me, noir is a pre-packaged formula that doesn't get old, unlike the teen films or action films of today. i have to acknowledge that many noir films do the same things and use the same conventions (flash back, voice-over narration, extreme shadows, they often feature newspaper men or private investigators as the protagonists, and they all have the same dark life philosophy). however, just because they're formulaic doesn't mean they can't be individualistic or great in their own way. set-up is rife with nice touches and good Noir lines. sure it's no double indemnity, but it's well directed and written. the fight sequence towards the end of the film is great filmmaking. B+.

Terminal - the worst movie steven speilberg has ever made (correction: a.i. is the worst film he's ever made, this is the second worst). the third feature film hanks and speilberg have collaborated on makes me wonder if they shouldn't call it quits. it's not that the film is completely devoid of fun or good filmmaking, but it's clear to me that they've lost their edge here and should move on to individual projects. saving private ryan was a great film, catch me if you can was a good film, and the terminal is average speilberg at best, and a disaster at worst. some of the comedy works well, some of the character have some good moments (kumar pallana shows he's great even outside of a wes anderson film) and there is some inspired cinematography. unfortunately all that is weighed down by the clunky plot which falls into cliche land and never wrests itself of myriad film conventions - the love story, the little guy fighting the mean dictator, the fish out of water, etc. for hanks the film makes a little more sense - it goes along with some of his more recent roles that find him reinventing himself as an actor. in cast away he carried the film, in catch me if you can he played sort of a straight man role, but had to win the audience over since decaprio was the empathetic character, in ladykillers he completely stepped outside of his normal roles and became a southern gentlemen who happens to be a thief as well. unfortunately the film takes a turn towards the pedestrian about half way through and from there on no one could save it. i can't think of a film with more product placement than this one...everything from sbarro and starbucks to brookstone and the discovery store. on a side note - today is tom hanks' birthday so i'll give this movie a C-.
City of God - stylistically it's a cross between tarantino and amores perros, thematically it's along the lines of menace II society. roger ebert called it one of the best films you'll ever see...i don't know about that, but i do know that the academy was smoking some wacky shit when they gave "master and commander" the best cinematography award over this film. it probably also should have beaten return of the king for best editing, but that award was more for the entire trilogy than it was for that single film so that one was acceptable. it's a very good looking film - not in the cinemascope sense, but in the sense that it perfectly captures a feeling and atmosphere. the film almost sweats at times because the cinematography is that good. it's a very stylistic film, but it never trips over itself or comes off as being about style over substance. which brings me to the story...it's great story that plays with time in an effective way, rather than doing it merely for the novelty of doing it. the first scene hooks you and then the narrator pulls you back several years to tell the story chronologically (more or less). you find out things as you need to know them and it works better than telling you things as they happen, hoping that you will remember them when you need to. one thing i didn't like about the film was near the end when there's sort of a surprise with a kid killing someone to avenge his father's death. i don't want to give it away, but there's no way the audience could have known about the kid's motives, so i felt it was a bit cheap of the film to use that a surprise. for me a good surprise is when i could have figured it out if i had really thought about it, but when the film doesn't give you any chance to figure it out on your own then it's less rewarding for me. it's like watching an episode of scooby doo or something. really though it wasn't that big of a scene or that big of a plot point by the end of the film so it didn't weigh into my grade much at all. B+.

Human Nature - michel gondry and charlie kaufman (eternal sunshine of the spotless mind) team up here to explore the more base qualities of human nature. the story is told in flashback by three characters - one an overly-hairy woman (arquette), one a dead man (robbins) and one a former ape man (ifans). visually the film is vibrant and storybook-like, both you would expect from gondry. before i watched it i didn't know who the director was (i had forgotten why it was in my netflix queue), but in watching the film i recognized the style and by the end (when i saw the director) everything made sense. the nature scenes look entirely unnatural and like a filmed version of a fairytale or of the adam and eve story. perhaps this is a comment that nature itself is a construct or some unattainable human creation? more than anything the film is a study of our nature in relation to humanity's place in "civilization." it explores our social mores, sexual relations and, in a way, hopes to find what it is that drives us all. to me it seemed that after the film was done exploring our base desires, impulses and needs we are most driven by our desire to fuck. usually a film with this kind of conclusion turns out to be an erotic thriller (basic instinct) or a tedious filmgoing experience (last tango in paris), but this film was different because despite a sobering (at best) or depressing (at worst) conclusion, everything was dealt with in a humorous way. of course it wasn't just about our sexual impulses guiding our everyday actions - there was also an exploration of our will-to-power and ascetic lifestyle, and how those are ultimately our undoing. after all, in the end who makes it out free and alive? - the one character who is both in touch with his inner-ape and is cultured, the one who acknowledges why ("to get me a piece") he is going through all the cultural motions. despite its philosophical groundings, the film is also visually interesting and moderately funny. B.

Corporation - my three biggest socio-political issues right now are: education (because i feel 99% of our problems can be solved with the right education), corporate dominance, and (an offshoot of the second item) media dereliction of duty. this film tackles the second issue with a deft clarity and focus that quite simply had me amazed from the first reel. let me cut to the chase here for those too lazy to read on: THIS is the film of the year, and possibly the best documentary (with the exception of american movie) to come out in the last five to ten. if there's any film that you roll out of bed to watch this year, please let this be the one.
most people who have an interest in progressive causes will be somewhat familiar with the outline of the film - corporate personhood has essentially led to corporations having an insane amount of control over what we see, eat, drink, breathe and consume in general. corporations have become part of our consciousness at an unshakable and unwashable level. they are ubiquitous, single-minded (profit), subversive parasites that erode our society from within. with this in mind you'd think the film was a marxist commercial out to bring capitalism to its knees. you'd be wrong. the film is remarkably even-handed in its approach. governmental as well as market fixes are proposed by different interviewees. i'm very much into the work of noam chomsky and michael moore (both are interviewed), i've read fast food nation, i'm a big fan of adbusters, i own naomi klein's "no logo" and korten's "when corporations rule the world" so a lot of this stuff wasn't all that new to me, but some of it was and the film is a perfect amalgamation of all this information. archive footage is used extremely well, like a hip-hop artist melding together samples in ways that create an entirely different tapestry of sound. interviews, archival footage, and good old investigative journalism are used to present a solid case about the role corporations have in our global society; as well as how we've gotten to this point and where we may be going.
despite the heavy nature and brutal pacing of much of the film, there are a few moments of ironic comedy. i do think the film would have done well with a few momentary pauses early in the film to allow things to soak in. in feature films a director might cut to an exterior for a beat or two to allow a bit of a cushion from one scene to the next, something similar may have aided the pacing of this film. it's actually remarkable that i wished it had taken a little more time considering its 2 hour and 25 minute runtime. i think it's testament to the film's strength. i also want to note that the long runtime and heavy nature of the film never came off as dry or overly-academic. in other words, it's not a boring film to watch - quite the contrary, it's a rather engaging and almost fun film to watch. i say "fun" reluctantly because learning about the ways in which a corporation is bilking america and the world out of our natural resources and hard-earned money isn't fun, but if you're interested in learning then it is an exciting film. a quick side note - the narrator had a perfect voice for the material and she reminded me a lot of the narrator in the "second renaissance" portions of the animatrix. generally i don't give films i've only seen once anything better than a B+, but this film blew me away from start to finish on so many different levels...A.
Fahrenheit 9/11 - there are a lot of different ways in which you can evaluate a film. a film like this often is judged primarily on the arguments it makes, rather than the way its constructed. as a michael moore film this is a fine achievement, as i said before, because it's such a synthesis of his previous work. as a social phenomenon it's an amazing piece of work. it's faced more scrutiny than any action by the administration it blasts, it's the number one film in america (including all the "red" states) despite it being rated R, being a documentary and being on less than a third of the number of screens that spider-man 2 is on. christopher hitchens, who absolutely blasts the film, points out that the slow action in afghanistan by bush is a point the moore uses against him. but, hitchens says, if bush had acted more decisively then moore would have found bush too eager to go to war. in other words, hitchens thinks that bush is damned either way, at least in the eyes of moore. to me, everything is about context, if your good friend says that he hates them damn immigrants you will take it as a joke, but if george bush says it then you fear he means it. yes, when bush goes from his "we must stop the evil-doers" speech to "now watch this (golf) drive" i feel sick. that's because i have a well-founded opinion about bush as a person. and i believe that moore does too. he (moore) acknowledges that he's the man behind the film and that much of this film is speculation and that much of the film is more about creating a pastiche of evidence to indict an already floundering president. only the most literal, or retarded, of moviegoers are going to take the film completely at face value. when moore shows innocent iraqi bodies he's not saying that all iraqis are innocent, he's merely presenting the alternate viewpoint. my suggestion to people going to watch this film is to take it as a filmed opinion piece. A--.

Lower Depths - the most theatrical of any of the fourteen kurosawa films that i've seen. about 90% of the film takes place in a long flop house of sorts that is perfectly constructed. in fact, all the art direction and set design is top notch - the costumes and sets reinforce, nay, establish the major theme of the film - that being poverty. like "grapes of wrath," the primary character of the film isn't a person, it's poverty itself. poverty informs and shapes everything that happens or is addressed; the film revolves on this axis. also, more than any of the kurosawa films this film was about an ensemble effort. mifune is the star in some ways, but the old man is a star as well, and both of them enter late and leave early so really there isn't a star in the film. kurosawa uses the cramped setting to full effect. it gives the feeling of isolation (from the rest of the world) and confinement (to their impoverished conditions). he is also able to move the camera and use editing enough to keep the film cinematic and interesting, rather than stale or too theatrical. there is little, if any, music in the film which i think also adds to the theatrical feeling of the film. kurosawa does rain like no one in cinema, before or after. he uses lines (vertical, horizontal and diagonal) to dissect the screen. i've only seen the film once so i don't know what each one means, but there is undoubtedly a reason behind the choice. in one scene we see two men in a bunk bed - one on top and one on the bottom - and they are talking about hell on earth. the horizontal split in this scene probably enhances the particular motif of the scene. kurosawa uses a similar method with the wipes in rashomon. speaking of wipes...there aren't any in this film. there are only four breaks in the film (five acts) and all are fades to black. kurosawa never disappoints, and this film is no exception, but this film was the most different of the non-90s films i've seen. it had the most comedy and it was the least filmic. B+.

Mystery Of Picasso - not at all what i expected, which was a straight-forward biopic of pablo picasso and his work. it turns out to be a more interesting film in some ways, and a less informative film in other ways. with the exception of a couple of scenes the film is just footage of the canvas as picasso is painting. clouzot (wages of fear and diabolique) positions a camera on the backside of sheets of paper as picasso paints and draws on them, so we see the work take shape as picasso fashions his art, but we don't see picasso or even his tools. this approach is interesting on several levels. first, from a filmmaking point of view, it is different from most art biographies in that the artist is not the subject of the film, at least not directly...and is certainly not the main visual subject of the film. picasso's work, as it unfolds, and thus his thinking, are what clouzot is most interested in here; so we get to know very little about the man (picasso), but have the potential to learn a lot about the way he thinks - as evidenced by how his paintings evolve. of course there's a lot left to the viewer in this style of film - how much you glean from watching picasso paint is determinant on your ability to follow his thought process. another way in which this film is interesting is the potential impact the film has on the art itself. picasso, presumably, never draws/paints in front of a camera with clouzot telling him "i only have five minutes of film left, so hurry up." also, the majority of his paintings are seen as finished products, in this film however, we see the paintings beneath the painting and this very well may have influenced the way picasso was painting for this film. in a sense his paintings become animation because he knows he is playing to a camera, to a crowd, that will capture all the strokes of his brush. we get to see the ideas that are discarded, and the changes that are made, in every work (about 20 total) he creates. in this way the film is a clear example of the observer changing the habits of the observed. despite the fact that we may not have gotten a pure look at how picasso thinks while he is creating something, we do get to see a genius at work - even if it is a particular and peculiar set of circumstances under which he is working. furthermore, since most of the 20 works were destroyed after the film was made (selfish genius on clouzot's part?), the film is all the more important as a historical document. B+.
In A Glass Cage- pretty creepy and artistic spanish horror/thriller. it's about an ex-nazi (is there such a thing? once a nazi, always a nazi?) who is confined to an iron lung (actually a glass lung, hence the title of the film) after an accident he had shortly after abusing a young boy. the majority of the film takes place inside a large, dark house which adds to the feeling of confinement of the film. an ex-victim of the nazi's ends up taking on nursing duties since he has become too much of a strain on his wife and daughter. at this point the film takes somewhat of an "apt pupil" turn - the victim, who is now grown up and unrecognizable to the nazi, finds the nazi's old journals and sets out to recreate some of the acts detailed therein. naturally there a good deal of homoeroticism and seriously sinister misdeeds along the way. in addition to the subject matter, the cinematography of the film also has a creepy, unsettling feel. there are very few colors, the filmmaker uses mostly dark, muted colors, along with grays and dull blues. the last 20 minutes of the film is almost entirely shot indoors, in very dark settings which, again, is befitting the subject matter. unlike "entrails of a beautiful woman," this film uses ambiance and style to enhance its exploration of the darker corners of humanity and the cycle of depravity. it is explicit at times, but doesn't rely on shocking images to the same extent of "entrails." it most reminded me of del toro's films, specifically "the devil's backbone." the protagonist (the nurse) was the weakest link in the acting chain, but he was adequate overall. B.

Fahrenheit 9/11 - i suppose it's impossible, but for the sake of this review i'll try to separate the philosophy and the film. first the film: the film is great. it certainly deserved the palme d'or because moore clearly has a way with the film medium. the introduction is a long preface to the rest of the film which features voice-over from moore about bush leading up to the events on 9/11. he addresses the debacle in florida, the extended vacations bush was taking just before 9/11, and the deliberate speed that bush employed after hearing that two planes had hit the wtc. a lot of this opening introduction before the credits is done in slow motion with a score that resembles something between godspeed you black emperor! and philip glass. though not as good as either, it's effective - rather quickly we our viewing world slows down and settles into a mood and state of mind that is almost trancelike. when the title sequence roles it sort of snaps you back into filmgoing mode. after this moore makes his case against bush, or, more accurately, makes a case for the bushes and bin ladens as bedfellows. he draws links between bush buddies and bin laden family members, between the bush family and saudi nationals. he outlines the same events following 9/11 that he went over in detail in "dude, where's my country?" so it's not much new for those of you who have read it. for those who haven't - basically the bin ladens got a free pass to fly out of the country while all other air traffic was halted. his argument of war in iraq as an economic decision for bush and his buddies is bolstered by all sorts of evidence, some direct and some circumstantial, but the sum of the parts has a pretty devastating effect. of course juxtaposition a favorite tool of his (and most great filmmakers)...he uses this to great comic effect as well as a method of strengthening his arguments against bush as president, or our hate of bush as a person. he'll show bush being a bumbling idiot who jokes about war and pair that with the grim realities of war. no member of the bush administration (or any political official for that matter) is off limits. his editing is great, but i wish he could have found a way to structure the film slightly differently. the first half was very much an academic visual essay, and the second half was more of an impassioned essay. he has always done an amazing job of combining humor, investigative reporting and the human element. this film, though balanced on the whole, was not as balanced throughout the film as his previous efforts.
fahrenheit 9/11 is clearly a michael moore film. one thing you can say for the guy, if nothing else, is that he's consistent. from day one (even before 1989's roger & me) he has been taking on the big corporate interests. roger and me and the big one were both almost entirely dedicated to the human impact of downsizing and the inherent greed of a corporate, globalized world. bowling for columbine combined this with a newer wrinkle about control of the public, namely that of fear. fahrenheit 9/11 finds michael moore revisiting all these themes - he goes back to flint and ties together what happened there as a result of General Motors leaving, to the high enrollment of marines in the area. comedy "bits" like reading the patriot act to members of congress while in an ice cream truck, or trying to get congressmen to sign their children up for the marine core, are straight out of his work in the awful truth and tv nation. he readdresses the methods of fear those in power employ to control the masses - threat levels, an unconquerable enemy, "us versus them", "the enemy could be anywhere," etc., just like he did in bowling for columbine; and all of that comes together nicely in this film. so while this film wasn't as impactful as bowling for columbine, as mind blowing as the first time i watched roger & me, or as funny as the big one, it may be his best work because he is able to bring everything together rather well. some may say that his work suffers when he strays from the facts to poke fun at the way bushies comb their hair, or look at the camera, or sing songs (ashcroft), or whatever, but that's part of the moore signature and part of what separates his films from films like "fog of war" or "uncovered: the truth about the iraq war," which are great in their own right, but drier. A-.

Zatoichi I - one year after yojimbo was released, comes the first installment of zatoichi, the film series. i'm pretty sure this started as a television series in japan, and became hugely popular at some point...i can see why. this story is fairly similar to yojimbo - a wandering stranger (zatoichi, the blind samurai) who works for one of two warring gangs. there are other, smaller similarities that i won't bother to list. since it's so easy to compare the two films (especially given the relative paucity of japanese samurai films i [and most] have seen) i'll first talk about the relative shortcomings of zatoichi. the score is good, but yojimbo's score is great. the direction in zatoichi is pretty good, whereas kurosawa's direction in yojimbo is almost unparalleled. the cinematography in both films is strong. the acting in yojimbo is amazing - from the smallest role all the way up to the title character, whereas zatoichi has solid acting, but nothing spectacular. in other words, yojimbo is a better film in just about every conceivable way. that said, zatoichi is a great film. its opening sequence serves as a great hook storywise and characterwise. i suppose that by now most japanese filmgoers would have had some interaction with zatoichi through the tv series, but the filmmakers wisely dedicated some time to getting to know the title character. i think the strongest aspect of this film was the relationship that was built between zatoichi and his adversary. they have a great deal of respect and admiration for each other, at one point zatoichi even gives his adversary a massage while they discuss swordsmanship. a common theme in asian cinema is the "herofication" of traditionally weak individuals - women, blind people, one-armed people, etc. zatoichi, the blind swordsman, is another in this tradition. i'll just say that it's a good film and you should give it a try if you liked yojimbo or sanjuro. B+.

Saved! - marginal farce of christian fundamentalists. its major problem is that it sort of doubles back on itself and ends up being a fairly christian-friendly film. in the beginning it has an "election" type tone and makes fun of fundamentalists like christopher guest might. in the middle, though, there is a tone shift and things start to get serious. that's where it went wrong. things end up getting too syrupy sweet and the protagonist, who had formerly dropped jesus like a bad habit and gotten pregnant, asks "i mean, what would jesus really do?" macaulay culkin's outcasted character softly reassures the bitchy fundamentalist antagonist of the film (mandy moore) by saying that jesus still loves her despite her transgressions. there are many other attempts at tenderness and resolution, but they all fall short of their mark. it really is too bad because the comedic portions of the film were pretty dead on. to get an example of the right way to do a satire like this you need look no further than another jena malone film - donnie darko - and what it did with patrick swayze's character. i truly think that most mainstream "liberalized" christians could enjoy the picture because it makes fun of fundamentalists (with whom most christians disagree), while still offering a sense of jesus as a guiding light as evidenced by the "i mean, what would jesus really do?" line, along with the gay guy saying "i feel jesus in my heart" and that's what matters, along with culkin reassuring his evil sister of jesus' forgiveness, etc. jordan lindsey would love this movie. C.

Control Room - documentary that takes us behind the scenes of al jazeera, the arab news station. the focus is primarily on the media coverage of the iraq war. we spend a lot of time with al jazeera corespondents and u.s. central command's (centcom) media people, as well as other journalists from newspapers and tv networks around the world. "control room" doesn't present a clean thesis like michael moore's documentaries tend to do, but it give a valuable look into the process of creating news as many of the middlemen see it. that is, we see what briefings journalists get and how they decide to report it. as a result we also get an idea of the failings of such a system. it becomes fairly clear that reporters at centcom merely repeat the news they are given from the army personnel, rather than finding news through investigative means and reporting those findings. many of the journalists featured ask the military spokespeople serious and probing questions and get pretty standardized answers and plenty of spin control. if you know much of anything about how the mainstream media gets its "news" and what it repeats (er, reports) then much of this film will seem pretty pedestrian. that said, it's still a valuable look into a new network that most americans don't know anything about. at times the film comes off as bit of a commercial for al jazeera as producing the best journalism in the world, or as being the most objective. that said, some of the al jazeera employees recognize that their cannot be true objectivism and that all they can do is hope to provide a balanced representation of the war, as they see it. this, fog of war and fahrenheit 9/11 create the modern "progressive documentary holy trinity." B.
Band Of Outsiders - it's an interesting film - it does a lot of things, particularly with sound, that make it worth watching for film fans. it's narrated by a neutral party voice-over and rather than using it sparingly, godard chooses to have the narrator tell the audience how characters are feeling, the history of their relationships, etc. usually voice-overs are done by characters within the film and give the audience a frame in which to view the film or provide important information to get the audience up to speed, so in this sense godard is doing something different here. the cinematography is rather striking, though i hesitate to say that since it's so cliché. it's not beautiful in the same way as a cinemascope feature is, or in the same way that citizen kane is, but the picture is, for lack of a better word, artistic. band of outsiders also has a compelling, though fairly basic and tried, story which is a relief since it's mostly an art film. often artsy films will abandon plot in favor of character development, and though this can be successful to an extent (down by law), it's usually a recipe for an unbalanced disaster. that's not to say that this film's plot was great (like i said, it's pretty basic) or that its characters were undeveloped (on the contrary, they were well-drawn), all i'm really trying to say is that it's more balanced than many films of its kind. i think this may be the case because it takes the new wave, artsy style and combines it with the caper b-films of american cinema, creating a hybrid style of film that is both artsy and character driven while having a plot that keeps the audience involved. this is the first godard film i've seen in its entirety because "in praise of love" was so bad i couldn't bear to finish it. this film gave me a little more confidence in his work. fyi: "bande a part" is the french title which may be for interest to tarantino fans. B.

Tin Drum - pretty great film. set in the 20s-40s, tin drum is an allegorical film of a german boy (oskar) who, at age three, receives a tin drum which he won't let anyone take from him. also at age three, he throws himself down the stairs and decides to stop growing. he also has the ability to break glass with his screams. it bends reality a bit, but it isn't a sci-fi picture or anything like that, instead these stretches of reality are useful allegorical devices. the lead is played by eleven year old david bennent who really does carry the film. tin drum is great in all respects, but if the lead wasn't as good as he is then it would have really suffered. there's really too much to say about the allegorical and symbolic aspects of the film, but suffice it to say that the story and symbols are intertwined rather well. the visual style and town in which the film is set seem like something out of a fellini film...amarcord comes to mind. even though oskar is a teenager throughout most of the film, he appears to us, and those in the film, as a three year old boy; and in reality his life experience is more aligned with that of a child. as such, he becomes a neutral observer of social and political events as they unfold. for the most part oskar is able to slip in and out of situations unnoticed, thus facilitating his role as observer. the film can justify this because he appears to be only three years old, and is thus thought of as an innocuous part of the scenery. being three years old offers one untold access. this is reinforced by the fact that throughout the film people virtually ignore him - talk as though he wasn't in the room, ss officers push him aside when dealing with others, etc. B+.

McCabe And Mrs. Miller - i suppose the most remarkable thing about this film is its visual style. released a year before godfather, mccabe and mrs. miller employs a faded and tinted (yellow, orange and brownish) look to achieve a dated, period look. vilmos zsigmond (deer hunter, psycho a go-go) does the cinematography. a young upstart town is the centerpiece of the film. in this sense it reminded me of "far country" which showed some of the more interesting goings-on of a newly formed town. beatty is a businessman who seeks to bring the new town a brothel/saloon. christie plays a street smart woman who ends up being his business partner and romantic interest. not much actually happens in the film until the last half hour of the film. most of the time it's more about beatty's romantic and business life. there are enough comic moments to keep the film balanced, especially given the ending. the film has a very musical (done by leonard cohen) sweep and tone to it. there are several musically driven sequences, not as a way of passing time, but more as a method of breaking up the film or providing punctuation. there are other sequences, which center around christie's character, which feature two or more people talking in the foreground at first, but the camera follows christie, or some other action and the talking shifts to the background to create a sort of dreamy, musical effect. it's hard to describe, especially when i don't remember it that well. suffice it to say, it's noteworthy and interesting. i respect the film, but i didn't enjoy it enough to give it any more than a B.
Grand Illusion - pretty similar to great escape in that it features prisoners of war in germany who try to escape by (among other methods) tunneling out. this one takes place during world war I and was made before world war II was in full swing. it feels about as long as the great escape, but is only 110 minutes long so that was unfortunate. that said, it's a good film. the characters are pretty well-rounded, though no one compares to some of those found in the great escape. erich von stroheim plays a german commandant who is similar to the commandant in the great escape...they are both, like the captives they are watching, prisoners in their own way; both would rather have the war be over. there is a definite anti-war theme and it is manifested through the german/french relationships that are forged. commandant rauffenstein (stroheim) has a meaningful relationship with french captain boieldieu. likewise there is a touching, albeit fleeting, relationship between marechal (the protagonist) and a rural german woman. renoir also throws in lines like "nature couldn't care less about borders" when marechal and rosenthal are fleeing towards switzerland which "looks no different than germany." what's the "grand illusion" then? life...our borders, our arbitrary distinctions, our systems of class and government, and all of those things are the subject of renoir's film. the film didn't seem to have the same technical prowess as "rules of the game," but it was more interesting to watch. B.

Dangerous Liaisons - by all outward indications i should have hated this film. it's a 17th century period piece that takes place in france and spends about 98% of its time focusing on the bourgeoisie...it doesn't get much worse than that. however, it saves itself by being more of an indictment against bourgeois culture and the idle rich than it is about the normal fare for this kind of picture (going to balls and keeping up appearances). it also doesn't have the weight and slow pace that bog down a lot of period films. the plot is a bit difficult at times because there are a lot of names and it's a tangled web of deceit that is being spun, but i think that keeps the viewer more involved/interested than confused. one of the more pleasant surprises of the film is that, like cruel intentions (which is based on the same novel), it treats the action with a certain air of comedy. it's hard to put into words exactly what the tone is - it's not flippant, it's not all out comedy, but given the subject matter, it's also not nearly as heavy as you might expect. i found myself laughing at the misdeeds and cruelty of the two protagonists (glen close and john malkovich) and i think that's because the film allows you to feel okay about it. somehow it conveys the sense that even the characters sometimes know the absurdity of their games; and much of this can be attributed to the performances of the leads. despite this relative lightness, the film does have some emotional weight - especially towards the end. in the final reel or so things get pretty heavy. surprisingly, the film's tone shift is executed well. even though i spent most of the film having nothing but disdain for the lead characters, by the film's end i actually had some pity and even sympathy for their circumstances - circumstances which they created themselves. i felt the same way when watching "cruel intentions" as well which leads me to believe that the original text is deserving of the kudos. normally i would have the mindset of "you made your bed now you get to sleep in it," but somehow the story is able to win my sympathy. on a deeper plane the film addressed themes ranging from sexuality, repression of society, bourgeois culture, and the power of love. it's a textured and layered text that is ripe for study and, apparently, film adaptations. this one did a fine job. a strong B.

Stray Dog - mifune plays a cop whose gun is stolen and subsequently used in several crimes. mifune is disgraced and searches desperately for the gun throughout the city. i think you have to watch any kurosawa film at least twice before you cast final judgment on it. that said here's my first opinion...i liked it, but i didn't love it. it's the earliest (1949) kurosawa film i've seen so far and it seems to me that he didn't really discover his vision until a year later with rashomon. it's not that the film isn't well done or doesn't bear his signature, it's just that things didn't all come together technically and artistically until rashomon; so far as i've seen. there are shades of the humanity that he exhibits in the end of rashomon or in all of ikiru, but it isn't as crystallized or focused in this film. toshiro mifune is brilliant as always. i love this guy. he may be my favorite actor of all-time. enough said there. actually, one more thing, mifune looks really good in this film - perhaps because he's younger and clean shaven. good looking guy. back to the film...kurosawa tells a story as well as any other director i've ever seen. he knows how to keep you intrigued and involved in the story, the characters and the themes. it's the kind of thing that is so easily over-looked because part of good story telling is that you don't notice the elements of the storytelling. he uses voice-over in the beginning, but that's the only time i really noticed i was being told a story. as an aside - both kurosawa and kubrick (my two favorites) are big fans of the voice-over. some tend to think using voice-over is lazy, but i have no problem with it. some of the other strong points of the film include kurosawa's ability to draw the viewer into the shoes of mifune's character. part of this is the amazing acting of mifune, but a lot of it is also a credit to kurosawa's storytelling. i don't know how to demonstrate that, but i think it's true. the film dabbles in the noir genre, but isn't strictly a film noir. there is a sense of fatalism that hangs over the film - the descent of mifune's character into the underground, the sad state of social affairs, the sense that even if mifune hadn't had his gun stolen the crimes in which is gun are later used would have been committed anyway. the more i think about the film, the more i realize how layered it is and how valuable a film it is. i wish i had liked it more because for me it's more important to have my heart in a film than it is to have my mind in a film. my favorite films are always the films i experience on a visceral/emotional level first and an intellectual level second. B+.

12 O'Clock High - this film sort of struck me as an inverse of "paths of glory" (which is one of my top ten favorite films of all-time). i don't mean this in any negative way at all, which is how it may sound, rather i mean it to be an observation of its approach to a similar topic. both deal with war and feature high ranking officers (douglas in paths of glory, peck in 12 o'clock high) as the protagonist. in paths of glory we follow kirk douglas from the idea of the ill-advised battle to its poor execution to the ensuing trial. along the way we are shown in quite clear and painful terms the utter stupidity within war and of the men who wage it. in 12 o'clock high we follow general savage (peck) who is ambitious and initially very disconnected from the men. he soon finds out, though, that being a hard ass general might not be the best way to achieve the long term goals of the military. the difference i'm trying to highlight is that douglas is a man of and for the people who has only his men's interests in mind. peck is a man who comes down from his lofty post to discover that it's necessary to treat his men as such. peck transforms from seeming like the kind of man we hate in "paths of glory," to the kind of man douglas is throughout "paths of glory." the film is also interesting when compared to paths of glory because of its treatment of war. from the opening voice-over of paths of glory we view the war as a futile cause and so everything that follows is all for naught. in 12 o'clock high, though, we begin with this same impression, but it is dissolved by peck's insistence that their actions are not futile. he doesn't justify the entire war (i think it's a foregone conclusion that it's a "just" war), but he does impress upon us and his men the fact that their actions are worthwhile. even though war in general is not explicitly mentioned (as it is in paths of glory), i got the impression that this film makes a case for the use of war in certain instances because of the way it portrays the actions of the bombing group. their victories are great ones worthy of celebration, deaths are unfortunate and arouse melancholy, but missions are of primary importance. and the fact that the film begins some years into the future and is told as a reminiscent flashback, should strengthen the idea that 12 o'clock high has a different take on war - it can provide a positive glory. most non-propaganda war films show the bitter realities of war as a futile venture full of horror and death - men at their worst. i think this film did a decent job of not being jingoistic or propagandistic, but still retaining some of the glories that war can afford. not glories in the sense that they saved the world, but in the sense that these people came together, understood each other, trusted each other and accomplished something worth while.
12 o'clock high is also noteworthy for its solid cinematography. shadows are plentiful under the first commander, but when peck arrives, many of the deep shadows seem to disappear, signaling a different perspective on what the bombing group is doing. peck's performance is extraordinary. his character is deep, conflicted and complex, yet remains sympathetic at all times. after about 20-30 minutes there is a scene wherein peck is approaching the base he is about to take command of. his car stops, the driver lets him out of the front seat, and he smokes a cigarette while he walks around the back of the car to the other side. he gets in the back and tells the driver it's time. from that point on his character makes a shift from armchair general to genuine base commander and at that point the film is also his. its success or failure rides on his shoulders. it's a great moment. this is a fine film all around. it's over two hours, but i was into it the whole time. actually, the least interesting part of the film was the one extended bombing sequence towards the end of the film. it used real footage of actual b-17 bombers fighting enemy aircraft while dropping bombs in broad daylight. when that's the least interesting part of a film you know it's good. B+.

Wyatt Earp - three hours and ten minutes long and i didn't even realize i had seen it until there was about ten minutes left. actually there was a lot of it that seemed eerily familiar throughout the film, but i attributed that to the other three wyatt earp films i've seen - tombstone, my darling clementine, and gunfight at the o.k. corral. it gives the most complete, and probably most accurate, picture of wyatt earp of any of the four films. it approaches the story as an epic of one man and those who surrounded him. as a result it invests little in the secondary characters; to me this is one drawback of the film. one of the more interesting duos in film is doc holliday and wyatt earp because their relationship was so unique - earp was the law and holliday was a notorious criminal. holliday was a firebrand and earp was more collected. yet they got along and forged a meaningful and deep relationship. in addition to that, earp is an archetype of western culture and holliday is a timeless character - near death, fiercely individualistic, temperamental, and very capable. "wyatt earp" left most of that potential untapped. costner (earp) wasn't able to fill the shoes and quaid (holliday) didn't get the opportunity to be the force he should have been. we get to know wyatt earp, but i never felt like i was with him in his adventures. i watched him, but i never felt like we were let into his head and for an epic like this that's just unacceptable. it's well-filmed, perhaps a little bit too so. the filming felt too by the book. through most of the first half of the picture the story was told rather simply. daytime scenes would introduce an issue and nighttime scenes would see the resolution to that issue. scenes would alternate very methodically - day/night, day/night, day/night. later in the film things opened up a bit. the cinematography was good looking, but i preferred the photography in "open range." overall the true story and its legend hold a great deal of potential, but this film never really gets going the way it should have. watch tombstone instead. C+.

Rififi - some spoilers ahead... french crime noir film that does it all. it starts with a beautiful shot of men around a table playing poker, but all we see is the table and the cards in their hands. for some reason it's a striking image. there are several shots throughout the film that are well composed or beautiful, but the film never relies on its beauty. it's a noir, but it doesn't go strictly by the book like double indemnity or detour. it has a style and it does get dramatic, but it employs montage and a fine score, rather than extreme shadows, to heighten the drama. all the actors do a fine job, especially the lead (jean servais). carl mohner, who plays jo, seems to be a french burt lancaster - he's strong, capable, innocent and good looking. he doesn't have quite the power of lancaster, but the french are never as good as us so it's expected. har har. one thing that struck me about this film is it's sort of a circular noir...much like kubrick's "the killing." it begins with the protagonist shortly after he has been released from prison and, like all good noirs, it ends with that which has just escaped. actually rififi takes it a step further because our protagonist dies, whereas in the killing, sterling hayden goes to prison. that said, the killing is a much bleaker film. the caper itself isn't amazing by today's standards (it's no "italian job" or "ocean's eleven"), but it is certainly fulfilling and builds a good degree of tension. there is even some comic relief in the film provided mainly by robert manuel's character. a fine film in every respect. B+.
Dirty Pretty Things - it's a good enough film. i'm not a big tautou fan so that may have been one draw back, but that aside...the filming style wasn't great, but it also wasn't pedestrian so i liked that. also, the acting was solid. i didn't think much of the story though. the skeleton was good, but the flesh wasn't enough to keep the film afloat. it starts in an interesting way and then just drops hook, only to pick it up later in the film. for the middle part of the film i thought the story was bogged down by other, tangential issues the frears wanted to address. sure those storylines were interesting or meaningful or pushed the characters a bit, but i felt that the initial mystery, or hook, that was put out there in the beginning of the film was left untouched for too long. as a result the middle, rather than increasing my interest in the characters or those tangential storylines, had me wondering when the first part of the film was going to be picked up again. it's kinda like telling a story to your roommate like this: "i didn't do much today, but, oh, your mother called and had some very urgent news about...oh and that reminds me, i was watching the news while you were gone and i found out that seven more soldiers died in iraq. after i watched the news i found that book i had been looking for for so long - it was under the couch for some reason. i had forgotten how good that book was. i also cleaned the refrigerator while you were out. but anyway, back to the phone call from your mom...she said that your sister got in a car accident and went to the hospital, but is feeling okay." C+.
Vanishing (1988) - i saw the remake when it came out in the theater (1993) and thought it was pretty decent, but not great. i hadn't even heard about the original until last year. as is the usual, the original is better. i think the film succeeded in several different instances...in a short time we see the boyfriend and girlfriend at their best and worst - we see them fight and make up and that brings us into the relationship in a very real way. this success led to another - when the girlfriend disappears we are frightened and sad, just as the boyfriend is. the film also juggled time rather well. it was filmed in 88 and uses radio broadcasts of the 1984 tour de france as a time stamp (it's a netherlands production, but filmed in france). different stages of the tour indicate different times relative to the kidnapping time, which occurs during the last stage of the race. when we move back to the present (1988) we are tipped off by a missing person sign that reads "saskia (the girlfriend) went missing three years ago. if you've seen her please contact..." the last major success of the film is bringing the kidnapper into the film. i like plot moves like this because i love a healthy dose of perspective. to simply leave the kidnapper out of the picture, or only include him in scenes "dancing around in his grandma's panties, rubbing himself in peanut butter" (as pitt's character in se7en puts it) would be "dismissive" (as morgan freeman points out) and a disservice to truth. the truth is that not all madmen are as mad or insane as we'd like to believe, or hope. the kidnapper in the vanishing is a very thoughtful and otherwise pleasant person. like the protagonist in mike leigh's "naked," he is the kind of man who is truly horrifying because he is so capable and yet so normal. this guy could be your neighbor or father. in a greater sense the film also speaks to the chaos of things. rififi spoke to the fallibility of even the greatest plans, and this film speaks to the random chance that can destroy a person's life or make a person's plans fall perfectly into place. chaos can be both the most beautiful, and the most ugly thing in life, but we have to accept it as it goes both ways. another fine criterion presentation. B+.

American Nightmare - i think this documentary may have been the inspiration for danny boyle to use godspeed you black emperor! in "28 days later..." godspeed are used fairly judiciously in this film and "sad mafioso" is used during the clips of "dawn of the dead" which is the heaviest influence on "28 days later..." all that aside...the documentary covers six major horror films (night of the living dead, last house on the left, dawn of the dead, shivers, halloween, and texas chainsaw massacre) of the 60s and 70s. more than just rehashing them or talking about their influence on the genre, the film talks to the filmmakers about their influences and spends a good deal of time examining the cultural climate in which these films took place. everything from the cold war to civil rights to the sexual revolution to vietnam to the gas crisis is discussed by the filmmakers as the climate that facilitated these films. unlike "visions of light" which gave a fairly clinical view of cinematography's art and history, American Nightmare demonstrates a certain intimacy and love of the subject. visions of light certainly had interviewees who showed an immense passion for the subject, but the film itself did not exude that same passion. part of the way american nightmare does this is through its soundtrack (epically scored by godspeed you black emperor! and Karlheinz Stockhausen) and its ambitious style of cutting in source material with voice-overs. it's a good film and, like stone reader or visions of light, does a really good job of getting the audience into the material. after watching this i wanted to break out all my horror films and watch them on end. it's able to do this because the film itself is passionate about the subject, the interviewees are passionate, and the information relayed to the viewer is interesting, funny, moving and intelligent. B+.

Elephant - the film definitely has a certain degree of potential - both in its content and the way in which it was filmed. it's basically a fictional version of what happened at columbine high, enough said there. as for the filming style...it was done almost completely with stedicams while following various characters in the high school. like kubrick does towards the end of "the killing," van sant tells each character's story up to a point, rewinds time, and follows another character. we are given this information when we see a second or third character interact with a character we have previously followed. because the whole film is done in this manner without the aid of voice-over (which kubrick employed in the killing) it makes for an interesting way for van sant to flex his directorial muscles. editing and logistics must have been a pain, but it's pulled off fairly well. ebert points out that this style was partly employed as an attempt to strip the film of its cinematic flavor ("avoids the film grammar," as he put it)...to get closer to a cinema verite style. the results are mixed - he doesn't use much cutting, but he does use title cards; he doesn't have any fade outs or wipes, but the editing style (forward to a point, back and then forward to the point again) certainly made me conscious of the filmmaking process. in other words, he was trying to make the filmmaking as transparent as possible, but had mixed results.
aside from that the film is largely untapped potential. acting is spotty and the screenplay fails to provide much emotional resonance. pretty much the whole film is about setting up the normalcy of high school - the kids we follow have mostly vapid, empty conversations about their love life or lunch or people they don't like. the only motive provided for what the two killers do is that one of them gets something thrown at him in class. that's literally it. if the goal is to present a situation where we don't know the motivation, then why show this minor incident which seems to hint at a larger problem? "elephant" was utterly unconvincing and disappointing in that regard, but i think that's what van sant was going for. as for the title...i have no idea why it's called "elephant." i suppose that makes sense though because i had a similar question after watching the movie...why make this movie at all? i don't know what van sant was hoping to accomplish. he demonstrated an ability to handle the technical aspects of a film that was fairly demanding in that regard, but we already knew he could direct a good film. did he hope to re-establish himself as an indie director by working with amateurs on a small film?
if i stretched it i might be able to think of the film like this...the film was shot in an intentionally cold way, with mostly vapid characters interacting in a completely normal, uneventful way all for the purpose of setting up a neutral landscape for the viewer. even the killers are seemingly okay people - we don't feel that sorry for them because we don't see any awful abuse or teasing. we also don't empathize with the future victims because they have few, if any, redeeming qualities...or for that matter much personality at all. in other words the entire first 70 minutes of the film before the shoot-out sets up a neutral arena for the viewers. we don't think the killers are justified and we haven't invested much in any of the victims. the shoot-out, then, reflects our own feelings about spree-killings in general. since we have no empathy for the killers and no bias for/against the victims we are forced to judge the act instead of those who are carrying it out or being victimized by it. since i came out of the film with no real feelings about it does that mean that i don't care about killing unless someone meaningful is being killed? perhaps. i don't know. i think one might be able to view the film in this manner, and that that would make the film slightly better, but still not all that great. after all, wouldn't the same effect be achieved if he had just lopped off the first 70 minutes altogether? again, i don't know. it's an interesting film to discuss, but i don't have anyone to discuss it with and i didn't really like it all that much...on the other hand the more i think about it, the more interesting it gets so i'll give it a C+.

Lone Star - a fine all around film. it's well-layered and as such is probably good material for several viewings. more than anything it's a good screenplay. all the characters and situations interact well with each other. themes of history (ethnic, national and personal) link all the characters and various storylines. acting is solid all-around, especially chris cooper and joe morton. as good as it is technically it just didn't interest me all that much. the mystery was somewhat compelling, but seemed side-tracked at times because of the love story or the personal conflicts here and there. oh well. sayles did do some nice directorial things. the importance of the past was reinforced by showing flashbacks within a scene without cutting. a flashback might take place in a bar, for example, and we'd see the old version of the characters talking about the past and the camera would pan to the left and in would walk the younger version of that character. linking the past and the present seamlessly within the camera made more concrete the idea that the past and present are inextricably linked. the importance of the landscape was reinforced in many scenes where the camera would be focused on a cactus and would then shift to the characters, or a piece of landscape would be prominently featured in the foreground and the characters would be less prominent and in the mid-ground. well made. B--.

Notorious C.H.O. - i've heard a bit of cho's comedy in the past, but i never remembered it being like this. it's actually not that much of a film. the original kings of comedy, which is also a stand-up feature, is much more of a film because the camera moves more, and is more heavily edited. so really the only thing to comment on is the content of the comedy. first, i wonder what brand of comedy the marx brothers would have worked in if they were raised in nigeria or mexico. i wonder if their comedy would revolve around being jewish and white amongst blacks or mexicans. it's an interesting phenomenon that straight white guys almost always make jokes about more general things (seinfeld makes comedy about noticed everyday oddities, bill hicks jokes about politics, drug-use and philosophy, george carlin jokes about cursing, politics and religion, etc.) while anyone who is not straight, white or male will more often joke about their period or white oppression or whatever their specific experience may be as a non-white non-male person in society. i don't have a problem with it...i've seen most of the original latin kings of comedy and enjoyed much of it, i've seen all of the original kings of comedy (all black comedians) and enjoyed that, but it's interesting to note nonetheless. so that leaves us with margaret cho who, apparently, is asian, female and bisexual so you can infer what most of her jokes revolve around. some of the comedy is decent, but most of it didn't really rouse me. i didn't have a problem with her making generalizations about straight guys being single-minded idiots, it's just that the jokes she made weren't all that funny and her delivery lacked the right comic timing. that said, her impressions are good. when it comes to making fun of a single type of person, though, dave chappelle is still the champ. his impressions of white guys are fucking hilarious and cho can't hold a candle to it (whatever that means). her impressions of her mother are mostly funny and her mother seems to take it all in stride so that's good. i guess what it comes down to is this: i didn't mind the content, but the jokes, and her delivery thereof, needed work. she should take a page out of bill hicks' book because he was great at intertwining serious messages into his comedy. when cho got started on heavier topics like her gay friends dying of aids or respecting oneself, it took her a little long to interject the comedy and that disrupted the comic flow. i'd like to check out her earlier film because i have a feeling that it's a bit tighter and more funny. no matter what you think of her comedy you have to respect her for unabashedly being herself. C.
Carnival Of Souls - an interesting film, but not a very compelling one. it's an independent film released in 1962 and it plays out like a long episode of the twilight zone. a woman and her friends are driving on a bridge when they are pushed through the guard rail and crash into the river below. the protagonist miraculously emerges from the river and goes onto another town to work as a church organ player. while in this new town she shifts in and out of existence...through most of the film she can be seen and heard by everyone, but sometimes she'll shift out of existence and walk amongst people as if she's a ghost. it's not a scary film or a particularly stylish or fantastic film in any way, but it is interesting for a couple reasons. i think a little too much is made of the film's influence or it's distinction among horror films of the time. surely, it doesn't fall into the normal b-horror film standards, but i didn't feel it broke ground that hitchcock hadn't already covered, in vertigo for example. it's a psychological thriller and that's why it separates itself a bit...more of the films of the time were about invaders from outer space (invasion of the body snatchers or invaders from mars) or nuclear experiments gone wrong (them!). one interesting thing about the film itself is that it's really a story that is taking place inside the protagonist's head and the filmmaking reinforces that. for example, there will be an organ track that will provide the soundtrack to the woman driving, but then later in the film she will be playing the same tune on the organ. it's an "inside/outside" (at least that's what i'll call it) style of filmmaking that reinforces the fact that the protagonist is responsible for what we are seeing/hearing. in normal films the characters won't interact with the score (except in musicals), much less play pieces of the score from earlier in the film. other examples are the more run-of-the-mill kind - if she sees a ghost we'll see it too, etc. but that kind of technique is always employed to get the audience in the protagonist's head. romero seems to also have been slightly influenced by the film. night of the living dead has a similar visual style...at least in the part of the film that takes place outside of the cabin...and barbra looks like the protagonist in this film. in sum, carnival of souls did some interesting things, but never really captured me like the great psychological thrillers have. also, orbital samples a line from this film "why can't anybody hear me?" on their "middle of nowhere" album. C+.

Tora! Tora! Tora! - although none of the characters in this film really pop out like they maybe could have, it's still a good film because of the screenplay. a bit of background i suppose is in order - it's a film about pearl harbor with the japanese side of the events filmed by japanese filmmakers and the american side filmed by an american crew. unlike "pearl harbor," its goal is to tell the story of the event and the people on either side of it. and that's why the film is successful - because it seeks to tell a compelling story in a straightforward manner. it gets the facts straight and doesn't attempt to create drama, rather to capture it. it wasn't a film about the president against the emperor, or general against general, it was a film about how things can get carried away; to put it mildly. the set design and visual effects were completely effective and the finale was very realistic...actually just as realistic as the scenes in pearl harbor (though the sound wasn't as good). the direction on both sides (japanese and american) was good, but i wish there had been more of a stylistic difference. i didn't notice any differences in the way the two sides chose to film their respective scenes, which is unfortunate. actually kurosawa was first slated to work on the japanese side, but dropped out for some reason...i forget what it was. a good film. B.
Suicide Kings - all fart and no shit. that's a little harsh actually. seriously though, the film tried to be a lot more than it ended up being and it's hard to describe where and how it failed. it's like moby's latest (hopefully last) album - it tried to be all things to everyone. it tried to have comedy (some jokes worked, others didn't), action (not action so much as mafia tough guy posturing), drama (denis leary beating up an abuser of women), and mystery (the david mamet twists at the end). unfortunately it didn't wholly succeed in any of these categories and what resulted was a mish-mash of potential gone mostly wrong. denis leary turned in a decent performance and christopher walken carried the film. some of the jokes worked and it passed the time for the first half of the film so it wasn't a complete waste. the direction showed some ambition, but not all that much talent. story-telling is the most overlooked aspect of filmmaking in this mtv age. i know i sound old when i say that, but it's true. oliver stone used mtv style filmmaking with great success in natural born killers so i'm not against it, but you have to know how to tell a story before you start experimenting with that kind of stuff. but i digress...you're better off watching made (which also had its problems) or lock stock and two smoking barrels (which had style and substance). C-.

Cobb - this is more a biopic than it is a sports film. it's tough to judge the film without judging the man, and jones' performance. first jones' performance - it's great, he really inhabits the character and transcends acting. it's not the most amazing performance i've ever seen, but it's good enough that the performance is transparent and that's what every actor should strive for in this type of role. onto the man - cobb was a fucking bastard, but he was the kind of bastard who is perfect for film. in real life he's the kind of guy no one (or damn near no one) would want to associate with, but this very quality makes him perfect for examination on film. film has the ability to make the most despicable characters somehow sympathetic or funny or interesting. perhaps it's because we are able to observe without having to interact - we can be alongside a character as he throws a violent fit, without the unpleasantness of having things thrown at us. onto the film...it's put together rather well and i think most of that is owed to the screenplay. it balances flashbacks and contemporary time (it takes place during 1960-61) in a way that allows us to slowly discover what made cobb what he is. the score is good and helps add to the grandeur of cobb's character. he's not all that good of a person, but one can't help but respect his ferocity to some extent. he attacks life and baseball with equal vigor and i think that most people can respect that, in spite of his hatred of most people and his gruff and crass personality. B+.

Das Experiment - where to begin? the film is based upon the actual stanford prison experiment, but isn't a reenactment, it's more of a "what if?" essentially the experiment takes two groups of individuals (one group as the guards and one group as the inmates) and, over a 14 day period, we see what happens. there are certain rules that are given to the entire group by the professor in charge of the experiment and the rest is left to the involved individuals. i don't want to rehash the plot here, but suffice it to say that things turn sour rather quickly. power corrupts and the film demonstrates that pretty clearly. the prison sequences are separated by cuts back to the protagonist's new girlfriend whom he met just before participating in the experiment. this serves as a sort of buffer through most of the film so the audience can reflect on what they've just seen. i probably would have chosen to use DV (or maybe 16mm? because it's more grainy), instead of film, for the movie because of the subject matter. i also would have used more handheld shots. on the other hand they did use handhelds a couple times and it had a good effect and that may have been because they didn't overuse the effect, so perhaps i'm wrong on that point... in a way the film is a sort of an inverse of lord of the flies. in lord of the flies the kids are in a state of nature without any authority or rules, in this film they are confined and have very specific rules and roles they are supposed to follow. the outcome is the same, but the beginning is completely different. that, to me, is extremely interesting and provocative and, regardless of how they filmed the movie, was worth the time i spent watching it. just to make it clear - i didn't have any problem with the way they chose to film it - i just would have done it differently. how much you want to get out of the film is up to you, but i think it's impossible to watch it without thinking, and that always makes for a good film. when i watched it i thought about where things went wrong, how i would have done things if i were on either side (guards/prisoners), and how the unfolding of the experiment applies to nazi germany and contemporary life here in the united states. .... .... it's sad how quickly people can lose their humanity. i could go on for a lot longer, but i'll cut it here. the film is great and done well. all the actors do fantastic jobs. B++.

Two-Lane Blacktop - like vanishing point and easy rider, two-lane blacktop is road movie that explores the theme of post-frontier freedom. easy rider and vanishing point are better films and explore the subject in a more obvious manner, but two-lane blacktop is certainly worthy of watching. i was skeptical of james taylor's ability at first, but he does a fine job as "the driver." the rest of the cast (basically just three more people) is also competent. i think there could have been some trimming in the middle of the picture because it does seem to drag a bit, and it doesn't help round out the characters. usually when a film takes some time out for a breather it's so that the audience can either reflect on what has just happened or get to know the characters a bit more...neither is necessarily true for the slower parts of this film. that said, it's not that much of a problem, but a minute here or there can make a difference in pacing. in easy rider and vanishing point we get to know the characters a lot better. some of that is because of the writing and some because of the direction. there was very little exposition in this film relative to easy rider. but vanishing point was able to get by without a lot of exposition because the direction (especially the use of flashbacks) was so good. two-lane blacktop could have learned from those films. actually vanishing point came out the same year, but you get my meaning. the camera keeps its distance throughout most of the time and that's unfortunate because i would have liked to get to know the characters more. at the same time, i suppose this helps retain the characters as symbols. that said, there isn't as much of an attempt by the filmmakers to turn the characters into anything more than themselves. not giving them names is a step in that direction, but i didn't notice much more than that. at any rate, it's a good film that drags a bit in the middle, but is still compelling and worth checking out. B.

Schizopolis - "offbeat comedy" doesn't really do the film justice. it's a film composed in three parts. the first shows steven soderbergh's primary character (he plays two people in the film) in his role as family man and "office space" type employee, but he works for a scientology type organization. the second segment follows soderbergh's secondary character (a dentist) who is having an affair with his first character's wife. the third segment follows the wife. all the segments overlap in time and space, but they don't necessarily cover the exact same time frame....and since they follow the three characters separately we see what each of the people does during their day. it's filled with seeming non-sequiturs - like the elmo character who factors very heavily in the end of the film. it's a hard film to really judge because it's tough to really understand what's going on, what's reality, what's not, what's there for comic effect and what's there as actual storytelling. in the first segment soderbergh's character talks to his wife like this: "bland greeting." she'll reply "obligatory pseudo-loving response." etc. in the third segment his primary character (the husband) talks to his wife in japanese and his secondary character (the dentist - her lover) speaks in spanish. to what effect you might ask...i don't know. sometimes it's funny, but i don't think it's all about comedy. sometimes there is commentary on the mundane nature of our lives or on filmmaking, and other times the film will poke fun of nothing (or everything?) in particular for a laugh. it's a tough film to grasp because it gives the impression that there is something to grasp, but it is so offbeat and almost surrealistic that analysis after one viewing is very difficult. unlike full frontal, though, the film isn't overly pretentious. so any difficulty there may be in trying to interpret potential meaning is met with eager curiosity at best, and indifference at worst. whereas full frontal turns the viewer off with its pedantic too-indie-for-you style. B-.

Gleaners And I - i've never seen agnes varda's "cleo from 5 to 7," but after seeing this documentary by her, i'm more interested than ever. they're two completely different things - one a black and white 60s film, the other a new millennium documentary. she exhibits an auteur style here, though, that makes me curious to see what she may have done with a fiction film that she could shape completely. in this documentary she starts with paintings depicting gleaners in wheat fields and sets out to find the modern day equivalents. since machines do most of the gleaning in fields she follows scavengers and street dwellers who glean what they can from the street, garbage cans, or fields after the harvest. varda interjects herself into the film quite a bit and that's fine because 1) the title is the gleaners and I and 2) she's an interesting subject. the way varda views simple things like passing trucks, found objects on the street, or even her own hands is not only interesting but it shows the curiosity that led to the making of this film. despite the fact that varda is very much a part of the documentary, she does allow the film to take her where it wants. she embraces accidents (the lens cap flapping into the frame after she accidentally left the camera on) and tangents (a man at the end who she runs into by accident, but ends up following for the last ten minutes of the film). a well-made film that is not only full of information on gleaning and french culture, but is also a pleasure to watch. B+.

From Justin To Kelly - first i have to mention that i decided to change the grade i gave "gigli" from an F to an F-. i thought it only fair to give as many "F-"s as i give "A+"s, plus, after watching this movie, it occured to me that, while this movie is awful, it's still not as bad as gigli. you see, if you're a seven year old girl who has seen three films in your life (all of them starring the olsen twins) then this film has the possibility of appealing to you. gigli, however, cannot possibly have any appeal for any demographic - not little girls, not retards, not monkeys, not even nazis eager to find another method of torture....well maybe that last one, but you get the point. "from justin to kelly" is bad in a way that very few films are, but it's sort of okay since it was probably put together in a day right after the first american idol was over. it also has infinitely less talent involved in the production when compared to gigli which has pacino, brest, lopez, affleck and walken. but enough about gigli.... this film is so formulaic it's scary. at just about every turn you know what's going to happen. it's the typical boy meets girl business...they fall in love at first sight, there are a series of misunderstandings, the truth comes out, they make up, happy ending. one thing that makes this film so bad is that they decided to make it into a musical...i'll let your imagination fill in the blanks. one thing that works to its benefit is the short running time...despite the extended musical interludes, it was barely able to muster more than 70 minutes worth of runtime. apparently "story" and "character" development weren't of high concern. actually it's rather fitting since the characters are as stale and two-dimensional as they come. we know everything about the characters after seeing them for the first time...and that's not good filmmaking, it's poor writing. i should also add that there are a fair number of plot holes and continuity goofs, but that's expected from a film that was probably written in a matter of hours. i just don't have words to describe how bad this film is. F.

Grave of the Fireflies - anime film that takes place in japan during WWII. the story revolves around two children - an older boy and his young sister. this film is everything that "spirited away" aspired (and was rumored) to be. i don't know where to start. first of all make sure you watch it with the japanese speech and english subtitles...sometimes that doesn't matter with anime, but in this case the english version seemed to add a lot of incidental speech (especially in crowd scenes). this is important because the film is so visual that adding people saying superfluous things just takes away from the visual emphasis of the film. that's one thing that's bad about a lot of films in the modern era - they don't know when to shut up. sometimes it's nice to just let the picture tell the story and this film does a very good job of that. despite being animated, the characters take on all the life and depth of a good real life character. this is achieved in a couple ways - the filmmakers make an effort to fill in the spaces that are generally left blank by animated features - they show the surroundings of the characters to a greater extent and they show the characters doing everyday tasks like going to the bathroom or washing their faces. they also animate the characters in a remarkably realistic way - again focusing on the minutiae: twitches, the angling of a character's head when they ask a question, characters scratching themselves, etc. instead of being static when they're not actively engaged in an activity. when real people sit and relax they still move, and the animators have captured that here. they also did a great job of writing for the characters. each character is very well rounded and their relation to each other is well-defined. from the beginning the brother and sister clearly are very close and have the quality of chemistry that we generally reserve for gable/colbert or bogart/bacall. things like the separation between the responsibility of the brother and the youthful ignorance of the child are well-portrayed. he (like the father in life is beautiful) tries mightily to keep her world as innocent as possible and there are several instances/symbols of this throughout the film. there's a lot to say about this film, but suffice it to say that you should check it out. B+.

Gigli - i'm not terribly hard to please, go ahead an look over my past reviews if you don't believe me. it's pretty rare that i give a film below a C. but then again it's hard for a film to be as bad as this one. sure you're going to have a bad film if you give a bunch of ten year olds a camera and some money, but that can't be compared to the talent that comes together with gigli - christopher walken (deer hunter, true romance, pulp fiction, etc.), al pacino (dog day afternoon, heat, godfather, etc.), martin brest (scent of a woman, beverly hills cop, etc.), ben affleck (good will hunting, dogma, sum of all fears), jennifer lopez (out of sight, the cell), to name the bigger names. there's plenty of talent here and the film turns out to meet all my expectations....and that's a bad thing. the score was awful, the acting (with the exception of pacino and walken) was piss poor, and the screenplay was probably one of the worst ten of all-time. here's the thing though: it wasn't that kind of bad that makes you laugh - it was bad to such a degree, and in such a way, that it made me uncomfortable. truly. the whole ben affleck as a retard-hating misogynist thing was just unsettling and kinda scary. jennifer lopez's character was supposed to offer a cool contrast, but her character was so poorly drawn, and acted, that she didn't provide much relief from the unsettling antics of affleck. i know she has the tough girl in her because i've seen it in "out of sight." all that being said, i was ready to let this film get away with a "D-" rating...until i watched the last 15 minutes. the first problem is that the movie was just too long (2 hours) and the ending dragged on like nothing i've seen since A.I.. the other problem was that it took the level of bad filmmaking to a place few films have ever been. everything about it was just plain bad. i can't honestly understand how anyone could see this script and think it was worth filming. F-.

Dawn of the Dead - this one's a classic. it's got a great soundtrack, amazingly good makeup and effects for the time, and some of the best acting in a horror feature that i've ever seen. it jumps right into the chaos which usually doesn't work because there's no baseline established, but i think romero pulls it off here. also, it's a sequel to night of the living dead so, in theory, the beginning of that film sets up the normalcy. by today's standards it's remarkably slow for a horror film. i think it allows us more time to get to know the characters and to allow the thought of their reality to sink in. when they try to get back to a normal life by making their storage room domesticated or having a nice dinner, there is always, in the back of our minds, the thought of the dead walking the earth, or a gun rack on the wall, or a television without reception to remind us that things aren't as normal as we'd like them to be. even though it is certainly a horror film, it's not what this generation may consider a horror film because of the extended breaks from flesh-eating or zombies chasing the protagonists. in a lot of ways the film is a drama. of course, it's also a comedy. and this balance is a strength of the film - there aren't many horror films that provide laughs, scares, haunting moments, truly sad moments and an uplifting ending. add to all that a healthy dose of commentary on anything from race relations to the way we sleepwalk through life, and you have a bona fide classic. A.

Open Range - as far as my memory and knowledge go, this is kevin costner's best directorial effort. dances with wolves is good, but too long and, from what i remember, not as artistic as this. i just looked it up and he's only directed four films, so this is officially his best effort as a director. he's been in better films and has had better performances - jfk, a perfect world and the untouchables to name a few. that being said, this film is a solid one with good performances from benning, costner and duvall. there's nothing all that new here, i mean if you've seen a good sampling of westerns you're not going to be surprised by anything. it has shades of winchester 73, shane, unforgiven and the good, the bad and the ugly, but isn't as good as any of them. the ending was a bit lengthy and happy for my tastes, but it certainly wasn't bad enough to ruin the film. i think that the screenplay was the weakest part of the film. there were a few cheap ploys to pull the audience towards the protagonists, or away from the antagonists. on the flipside, the strongest point of the film was its cinematography. interiors and exteriors were shot with equal skill. there were enough artsy touches to make me aware of the cinematography, but it never grew pedantic. some of costner's coverage editing seemed illogical, but i think it may have also opened up the action a bit. there were times when two people would be talking to each other and it would have some typical coverage like over the shoulder shots, or medium shots of them within the frame facing each other, but then he would throw in a longer shot under a fallen tree with them in the background or something like that. it threw me off a bit, but it was also sort of nice because it wasn't so by the book. seijun suzuki did this to a greater extent in "branded to kill." with a few revisions in the screenplay it could have been a very good film. B. p.s. james muro did the cinematography - his first effort as a cinematographer - but he did work as an assistant sound man on basket case. very cool.

Welcome To The Dollhouse - this is a really great movie. here's another film that starts with a really well constructed screenplay and builds from there. the script is very good, the story is great and the characters are just really well rounded. if i were to try and copy the film i think the hardest part would be capturing that middle ground that solondz is so good at finding. that thin line between an extremely warped sense of humor, teenage coming-of-age melodrama, and cutting commentary. solondz perfectly captures the cycle of abuse and the power play that exists within families and on the schoolyard. at the same time, he is somehow able to interject just the right touches that allow the audience to laugh at what they are seeing while still being very affected by what is taking place. only solondz could write a lines like "what you always gotta be such a cunt?" or "tomorrow - same place, same time - i'm gonna rape you." for a 12 year old and have it be funny. it's amazing how within one scene solondz can make us laugh, make us think, and make us want to cry. some of the movie is so exaggerated that it's funny, but it would be a mistake to discount the film as unrealistic or camp. i think that solondz is trying to capture the adolescent experience, and part of that is overreaction or blowing things out of proportion; anyone who has been young and honestly looked back upon their younger years knows this to be true. from literally the very first scene the camera is trained on dawn's character, so it makes sense that things are exaggerated here or there. it makes for both good humor and insight into dawn's world. i think matarazzo (the actress who plays dawn) should get just as much credit as solondz; she is so perfect for this role. her look, the way she eats, the way she talks, all her mannerisms are right on. the supporting cast, too, is both well-drawn and well-played. dawn's mother, sister, brother, and "boyfriend" brandon are all great (her father doesn't have much of a role and that's part of the point). in other words, this film is solid, entertaining, and thought-provoking. A-.

Dawn of the Dead 2004 - let's get this part out of the way - the original is way better. this one is good though. tom savini makes an appearance - he did the sfx and played a bit character in the original. it had a grainy, underdeveloped look through much of the film. it didn't use digital photography like 28 days later, but some of it looked like it was done that way. i don't know what they did to achieve the look, but it was fitting. i liked mikhi phifer's performance. sarah polley was the star of the film though. this is only the second film i've seen her in so i don't know how good she is, but she nailed this performance. they changed a lot of stuff in this version, and i don't want to really discuss all the differences between the two, but i will address a couple of the big ones... the first one was about 30 minutes longer and only had three main characters, this one had like eight. whereas the original had enough social commentary to know it was there, this one had hardly (if) anything to sink your teeth into in the way of commentary. i think that the original just wouldn't attract audiences these days. it's much more methodically paced and relies on character development, psychological terror and flurries of violence to make its impression. this film is more of the frenetic horror scenes seen in 28 days later... that kind of phenomenon is interesting. dawn of the dead 1979 influences 28 days later which influences dawn of the dead 2004. something like lotr books influences the neverending story film which influences lotr movies. that example isn't as good, but you get the point. i think that 28 days later was better. it had better characters overall, it conveyed the sense of chaos, loneliness, and loss more fully, and it was filmed better. this version did slip into horror conventions once or twice which was unfortunate. it's a good film that could have been better, but could have been a lot worse. 28 days later was a better homage to dawn of the dead 1979, but this one will do just fine to introduce this generation to the original. B. p.s. stay until the credits are done rolling.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 - first the small stuff...two important cameos - one from don siegel (the director of the original) and one from kevin mccarthy (the protagonist in the original). i like it when remakes do that...the other one (that i know of) to incorporate characters from the original into the remake was scorsese's "cape fear" which saw cameos from both robert mitchum and gregory peck. by the way, kevin mccarthy plays dr. bennell in one other film - the 2003 film "looney tunes back in action." that's sad. it's interesting to watch three versions of the same film made during three very different times. it's not only interesting to see how each director (siegel, kaufman, and ferrara - all are at least decent) approaches the same story, but also to see what sort of societal issues work their way into the story. this one had the best ending and best effects of the three. it was also the slowest and longest. with some trimming here and there, i think it could have been the best of the trilogy. kevin mccarthy (in the original) was better (overall) than sutherland, but sutherland did a good job. brooke adams also did a good job. the first and third versions of the film chose to begin in the future and use voice-over to retell the story. the 56 version had the best beginning - starting with an ambulance screeching around the corner and mccarthy screaming his head off about people being taken over. starting off with such a mysterious jolt was really effective. this version, like the 1993 version, began in outer space in an attempt to have the same mysterious effect, but neither succeeded to the same degree as the original. the subtext in this one wasn't easy to pin down. perhaps it was more nebulous than communism or the break down of the family unit. it did seem to comment on psychology and new agey spirituality. the 1993 version holds the record for the creepiest moment of the trilogy - when a converted meg tilly confronts her husband about the futility of trying to escape. i think the first one did the best job of the three in relaying deeper meanings to the story. in the first one dr. bennell comments on the slow changes we all undergo that turn us into "pods." that version was able to tie all strands of the story together the best. philip kaufman's direction is almost as good as siegel's. if he had cut a bit of the fat from the screenplay or found a way to pace the picture a bit better then the film would have been stronger. nonetheless it was a solid remake. B.

Decasia - this is the kind of film that movie snobs brag about watching (see also: "russian ark")...and one day i'm sure i'll drop the title to make myself look cool, but at least i'm acknowledging that upfront. the film itself is like koyaanisqatsi, only not as good, or as coherent. whereas koyaanisqatsi ends with its "message" or theme, this film is far more cryptic - leaving its meaning (if there is one) largely up to the viewer. perhaps it's a mediation on our decaying lives or the beauty of destruction or maybe it's just an experiment. to me, the film is the visual equivalent of someone playing with the tuning on an old radio. when you're in the proper mood, playing with the analog tuner of a radio can be quite satisfying. you can get the radio to produce all sorts of odd noises that, in some strange way, sound kinda cool. but if you're not the one with your hand on the control it often comes off as sort of annoying. "just find the damn station," you might think as someone rocks the dial between stations producing nothing but noise. watching the first half hour of this 67 minute film is a lot like being that person without control of the radio dial. i struggled to make sense of it at first. the ebbs and flows of the music seemed to have no correlation to the visuals - not in terms of the amount of decay in the film or in the images that the film beared. eventually though, i resigned to film. perhaps there was some brechtian intent of the filmmaker that i am just too dull to understand, perhaps i didn't view it properly. but i enjoyed it anyway. it does have a certain trance-like effect (not unlike "baraka" or the plastic bag in american beauty) and the music, though not as good as the philip glass brand of minimalism it was imitating, was effective. B-.

Vanishing Point- in the tradition of easy rider - a road film about 'the last american hero.' besides being a good story with a good concept, the film is well-executed all around. the flashback sequences and the colorful secondary characters support what is otherwise a sparse plot. the soundtrack drives much of the action and is high energy, but doesn't include a lot of well known radio songs. as a result the music can stand with the images in the film, rather than some lame macaroni commercial or evoke memories of the time you and your girlfriend got in a fight over who was going to drive. the editing is really good and ahead of its time. a lot of times there is a tendency to make edits after the camera comes to a stand still, but this film edits while the camera is panning, or following action, all the time. the result is more kinetic energy. good stuff during the chase sequences. another thing i liked was the promenence of the street signs and other symbols of authority. i couldn't count how many times there would be a shot of kowalski fleeing from the cops with a siren or a stop sign in the foreground of the frame. same cinematographer as scarface, norma rae and chinatown to name a few. sure it borrows a bit from easy rider, but i think it stands on its own as a great film of the era.  B+.

All That Heaven Allows - not that anyone's keeping track, but seven of the last ten films i've viewed have been released by criterion, and two of the ten were theater pictures. this is only the second sirk film i've seen - the other being written on the wind - but i think i can safely say that i like this guy. the glossy look and bright colors belie the truth of the story and the characters being depicted. sirk takes the usual hollywood melodrama and twists it. wyman is a widow, hudson is her gardener. they fall in love, but are forced to hide it for her fear of social ridicule. sirk reveals the dark underbelly of americana by peeling away, layer by layer, the sheen that might cover most pictures of an american town. wyman's children, along with the rest of the community, hold her hostage to their group morality which ultimately forces her to cancel plans for her marriage. sirk reinforces the themes of isolation through reflected images, fragmentation of the screen and plot. i loved the character of wyman's daughter - kay. she's a total egghead who, throughout the film, claims wisdom on deeper motivations of people. she gives insight in the context of freud or oedipus or whomever she is studying at the time. and though she comments that "theory and action should be one," her character stands in stark contrast to the lowly gardener (hudson) who actually lives his thoreauvian philosophy. indeed, the film compiles many of these contrasts...the contrast between the bourgeois friends of wyman and the down to earth friends of hudson, the wisdom of hudson who is self-taught and the book smarts of kay, the happy saturated colors of the daytime and the stark blue shots at night. it's a good film all around. B+.
Hidalgo - it's no seabiscuit. the acting wasn't as good, the "true story" wasn't actually true, the cinematography wasn't as good, the costumes weren't as good, the sound wasn't as good, and the horse, well the horse was about equal. all this isn't to say that seabiscuit was great or that hidalgo was all that bad, but hidalgo wasn't as good as the film to which it will probably be most compared. after seeing the previews i was afraid it was going to be a "lone american whoops on a bunch of arabs" type picture, but it wasn't; and that was a relief. it actually begins with the american slaughter of indians at wounded knee. and though there is some stereotyping of arabs as overly religious or superstitious, it's really not that bad. in fact the worst person in the story was a white woman who was known as "the christian woman." mostly it's a movie about a cowboy and his horse. while they're racing across the desert they get in a little trouble and meet a woman. nothing happens with the woman, but it's a happy ending nonetheless. the special effects left something to be desired. there was one interesting shot on the boat trip across the atlantic. malcolm mcdowell is having a drink and talking with mortensen's character. in the background a woman approaches. it's a profile shot with mcdowell in the foreground. the woman and mcdowell are both in focus which, of course, requires some sort of trickery. i don't know how they usually do it, but i know how it looks. it looks as if it were two different cameras - one focused on the foreground and one on the background. then they put the two together so that you can see both people in focus, usually that leaves a line of out of focus stuff around the person in the foreground. at any rate, in this shot it looked as though the person in the foreground was in front of a blue screen so it was a digital effect rather than an optical one. i think. anyway, i don't think i've ever seen it done that way. C.

Seventh Seal - it's a good film, let's just get that out of the way up front. in a strange way, it's almost too good. it's such a layered and philosophical film that it can be tough to penetrate. and, as it turns out, i was a bit tired while watching the movie so i drifted off a little here and there. on the literal level it's a journey film (like wild strawberries)...we follow the protagonist throughout a plague-ravaged sweden after his return from the crusades. ostensibily it's a story about him and his squire returning home, but it is really about his quest for answers in the face of death. his philosophy is one of nihilism and near apathy, yet he does care enough about life to challenge death to a game of chess - if he wins then he lives, if he loses then he dies. he only seems to care about life insofar as it gives him a chance to further his knowledge. films like these are tough because the first time you watch them is strictly for the plot and characters, the second time is when you get to really penetrate the philosophy. i suppose if i had a better memory i could recall all the encounters along the trip and the conversations between death and the protagonist, but i don't so i have to watch it again. here's the thing though - this film had a compelling enough cast of characters, a unique visual style, and a strong philosophical underpining that made me want to explore the film further. some films may be spectacular in terms of what they do with the camera (triumph of the will) or what they do for cinema (birth of a nation), but if it's not compelling then i'm not going to spend the time watching the movie the required number of times to get the full benefit. that's just my demand as a filmgoer - if i'm going to give you 80+ minutes of my life then i demand to be entertained or intrigued at least a little bit. i'll give this one a B- for the first viewing.

Gimme Shelter - december 1969...litterally the end of the 60s. the rolling stones (along with a few others) held a free concert at altamont speedway in san francisco. for some unexplained reason they hired the hell's angels as their security force. the maysles brothers and zwerin do a good job of constructing the film as a build up to the climax. at the very beginning of the film we see mick jagger responding to accounts of the near riot after it happened. then we jump back in time to concerts before the concert in SF. we know something bad happens, but we're not sure what and we only see the band members' reactions to it the next day. so the rest of the film acts as a contrast to what ends up happening in the last half hour or so; it also shows the behind the scenes politicking and logistics work that leads up to the hastily thrown together concert at altamont. the filmmakers edit the film well - jumping between the managers and the live shows in new york or elsewhere. we see how crowds act at other venues and get a feel for the rolling stones, both on and off the stage. as a piece of filmmaking it's quite good. as a historical document it may be even better. it's easy to make the film into something much more than it may be. the inability of the crowd and the hell's angels to get along throughout the concert could be extrapolated as being symbolic of the failures of the hippie movement in general. upon reflection i think that that would be a bit of an overstatement, but while i was watching the film and just swishing the idea around in my head it did seem to hold some water. altamont was four months after woodstock...mlk and rfk were already dead and the "60s" as a movement was, by most accounts, dead before the 70s actually came around. it's easy to see how one might site this as a failure of the hippie philosophy. jagger and grace slick both plead with the crowd, at several different times, to keep the peace and get along with each other. but as the night wears on the drugged up and excited crowd coupled with the lack of a respectable and proficient security force leads to at least one death and several fights. it's not as chaotic as i have heard it described, but it's definitely not a stable situation either. B.

Tokyo Story - expectations are a bitch. this film shows up on all sorts of top ten lists so once i saw that it had gotten the criterion treatment, i had to check it out. ozu uses space well...he films interiors in a style that is pretty original, especially for the time. he uses the low level "tatami mat" camera position along with a lack of camera movement, fades, dissolves or wipes to keep a very even narrative style that emphasizes observation of, rather than interaction with, the characters and action. he also has a very slow pacing and emphasis on the mundane which apparently influenced jim jarmusch. jarmusch's films often emphasize negative space...he films that which is usually skipped over. ozu does the same thing and also does not film that which is usually filmed (like the kids picking up their parents at the train station). he also will allow exact relationships between characters go undefined for several minutes. this, according to the commentary, is to increase the audience's investment in the film. but to me it's just obnoxious. the star of the film is setsuko hara, whose character is beautiful, humane, and yet still realistic. chishu ryu, also, has a good performance as the male half of the elderly couple. ultimately this is a film that relies heavily on its style...i didn't think all that much of the style since it wasn't engaging or particularly beautiful. it's a style that is its own, but it's not one that i enjoyed. i recognize that the film is well done, though some of the editing (particularly when first exploring the interior of koichi's house) is illogical, but that isn't enough for me. i did have a certain connection with a few of the characters, but not to the same degree that ozu seemed to desire. i wish i liked this movie more because there are things to like. the performances are good, the direction is solid and the style is unique. kurosawa's "ikiru," which is not unlike this film, was far more successful in capturing my heart, and without my heart this film, though respected, cannot be loved. B-.

Fight Club - probably the most misunderstood film of 1999. those who misunderstood it said it was violence for violence's sake or that it was animalistic and brutal without purpose...stuff like that. those people piss me off. the film is actually very philosophical (though flawed) and lends itself to much more interpretation and analysis than any other contemporary action film (with the matrix being the one exception). stylistically it's a modern noir tale - shot almost entirely indoors or at night, an underdeveloped look that deepens all the dark areas, the voice-over narration, the beginning shows the end, and there's the femme fatale. at the same time it doesn't work solely within the mores of film noir. from the very beginning it differentiates itself with a very active camera, visual effects and the like. what results is a fresh looking film that may one day have a name like "neo noir." a great soundtrack. pitt and norton are really good and well cast for their parts. i loved this film the first couple times i saw it, but i don't think it stands the test of time as well as i originally thought. seven and the game (also from fincher) are more likely to hold up to repeated viewings. seven is filmed just as well, if not better, and the game is a bit more solidly grounded philosophically...but that's primarily because its philosophy is vastly more simple. fight club is more ambitious and, i suppose, should get points for that. at any rate, fight club will stand up against the "american beauty"s and "matrix"s of its time. all those films, at their core, fundamentally question our lives and contemporary society, much as douglas sirk and rainer fassbinder did in their time. A--.

Journeys With George - alexandra pelosi (a member of the bush campaign press corps) films her experience working amongst other journalists who are supposed to be reporting on the bush campaign from the inside. it sounds like a good idea for a film because it might (like, "primary," "crisis," and "the war room") shed some light on bush and his campaign from a different perspective. for the most part, though, it's about pelosi and her experience as a journalist in this situation. she does mention that she sometimes wonders who she works for - her network (nbc) or the bush campaign - since the bushies are the ones that fly everyone around and buy her four cakes on her birthday. she acknowledges, to a certain extent, the amount of gladhanding that the campaign does to get on the good side of the reporters, but she doesn't flesh this out at all. one of her peers comments, just before the election is over, that he wished they had done a better job of (in essense) asking tough questions and writing real stories, but they didn't because they were so "charmed" by bush. one gets the definite impression that bush is a charmer (albeit a childish type of charm) and he uses this to his advantage. by the end of the film i think it's clear how much the bushies used the press corps. though it seems pelosi understands some of this she still makes a film that comes off much like her reporting probably looked - bush has a downside, but, gee, he sure is a nice guy. because for every minute of "this whole setup of us journalists trying to be impartial when we basically work for bush is a total sham" there is ten minutes of bush joking with the press corps, flirting with alexandra pelosi to get her vote (literally), and generally coming off as a nice, if somewhat immature, guy. we find out very little about who he really is and even less about his politics or campaign strategies. a disappointment primarily because of how good it could and should have been. C

Far Country - this and winchester 73 have sold me on the mann/stewart collaboration...now i plan on buying all the dvds featuring their talents...bend of the river, man from laramie, etc. this is a real quality western. it has the perfect setting - in the yukon during the gold rush - which allows it to be on a frontier, with plenty of money, great vistas and lawlessness. jimmy stewart plays yet another hero who isn't. throughout the majority of the film stewart's character (jeff) portrays a decidedly solipsistic cowboy who is neither good nor bad. in the end, though, he comes around. he comes around not because the injustice of the world finally becomes too much, but because he becomes injured and finally knows what it's like to be unable to care for himself - for once he is reliant upon others. the cinematography is really beautiful - especially the night/dusk scenes and the aforementioned mountain vistas. stewart is, of course, the centerpiece of the film, but the supporting cast is equally fantastic. none of them do as good an acting job, but each character reflects upon jeff in such a way that we have four different views of our central character. renee offers the opposite view - she knows from the outset that people need people, mr. gannon is the dark complement to jeff's character - perhaps what jeff could have been under slightly different circumstances, and ronda serves as the pefect female match for jeff before he realizes the err of his ways. walter brennan rounds out the cast as he has so many times before (clementine, rio bravo, etc.). it's an engaging story and a deep film. definitely worthwhile. B+.

Rashomon - the first really big japanese film in america, and many peoples' first introduction to kurosawa (myself included). at under 90 minutes it's definitely a short film for kurosawa, but it feels longer because so much is explored. it's an intensely layered film and as a result requires a couple viewings to really get into the nitty gritty issues that are explored. when i first saw it i thought it would be an interesting test of character - depending on which story you believed you would be a certain type of person. shrinks like to put people in groups so i figured this would be as good a way as any. ultimately i think the film is about questioning truth (that's fairly evident), but the levels of storytelling and truth that are explored in the film make it a more difficult knot to untie. kurosawa tells us a story about a priest and a woodcutter who are telling a commoner a story about a bandit, a wife and a channel who are telling their versions of the same story. and in the case of the channel we have a woman who is supposedly acting as a medium for a dead man - so there is one more intermediary between a perceived reality and our hearing its rendition. if it sounds twisted, or seems twisted when you watch it then i think kurosawa did a good job. my interpretation is that truth and reality shift according to the person who experiences it and, thus, the more versions you have the more twisted it becomes. ultimately we must acknowledge the limitations of these things and, perhaps, focus on the future (as represented by the abandoned child in the end). the visual aspects of the film are both beautiful and affirming of its philosophy. the crime takes place in the forest and the camera is often behind trees or leaves which obstruct our view. acting styles differ depending upon who is telling the story. it's just damn fine filmmaking. i don't think this is kurosawa's best film (though technically i don't know that he gets much better), but it's probably his most important film because of what it did for him, japanese cinema, and film in general. the commentary track had some good stuff, but i think it could have been a bit tighter and informative. A.

Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. - morris manages to find yet another unique individual and document the fine line between genius and insanity. the film is well-made, of course, but the story isn't quite as compelling as some of his other films. it follows fred leuchter who designs and builds capital punishment equipment - from the gallows to electric chairs. he justifies his profession by giving specific examples of executions turned torture as a result of faulty equipment - good equipment is the only humane way to kill a person, he posits. this sort of half logic (unfortunately) pervades his thinking. he actually started working on electric chairs, but soon states asked him to work on their gallows or gas chambers or lethal injection machines. he admits that his qualifications as an engineer of electric chairs doesn't translate to other machines of death, but takes the work anyway since he feels it comes down to an ability to learn more than anything else. later he is asked to investigate the gas chambers in auschwitz to determine whether or not people were really gassed there. he's completely unqualified, but seems to be ignorant of this fact. his ignorance of investigative procedure and hard science leads to a false finding - people were not killed in the "gas chambers" in auschwitz. he testifies to this in a court room and is immediately branded an anti-semite. this is not helped by the fact that he discusses his findings at various 'revisionist' churches, etc. across the nation. the movie is structured like 'thin blue line' or 'capturing the friedmans' in that it teeters back and forth between one side and another. leuchter presents his facts "there weren't any gas ducts in the chambers, thus there was no way to introduce or expel the toxin." while another offers a counter point "leuchter failed to look at contemporary blueprints which clearly show the existence of gas ducts. since the 40s changes have been made." and it goes on like that. unfortunately leuchter is always given the inferior position - others can respond directly to his arguments, but he doesn't seem to get the chance to redirect. it's clear that morris thinks leuchter is in the wrong here, and i suppose there's nothing wrong with that since morris is right. but morris does not go so far as to call leuchter an anti-semite. the film ends with a voice-over (one of many) that essentially says that leuchter got caught up in his own hubris - he thought that he could figure this puzzle out, but it was beyond him and his mistaken conclusion caused him much more trouble than he bargained for (since the trial he's lost contracts with states to work on their execution equipment, has gotten divorced, been brought up on criminal charges and is broke). i think the guy is completely wrong, but i do feel sorry for him because i sort of got the impression that had he gotten the facts straight he'd be much better off. B-.

Miracle - first some background, in case you're a sports ignoramus. in 1964, 68, 72 and 76 the USSR hockey team won the gold medal in each year's olympics. in 1979 (or was it 1980?) they played the nhl all-star team and beat them 6-0. up until the 1980 winter olympics they had been undefeated in the last 40+ games in their various travels around the world (including a win against the very same U.S. team that this story follows). once in the olympics the russians breezed through their first five games going 5-0 and scoring 51 goals (that's a lot). every expert in the world had them picked as the best team in the world with the best goalie in the world. but then they played a US team whose average player was only 21 years old, and they got beat. anyone who knows anything about the history of the modern olympics ranks the game as one of the top five greatest upsets in modern olympic history. add to that the political climate of the time and you've got a pretty great story. what most people don't know is that as huge as the game was it was only for the silver medal....the US went on to win one more game against finland for the gold medal.
but when you have a story that great there is a tendency for hollywood to fuck things up. here's a movie that could have so easily been bad...make that awful. it has all the trappings of a bad tv movie. the based on the true story of an american olympic hockey team defying all odds to beat the russian hockey team. there was easily the opportunity for flag waving and slow motion overload, but that stuff really wasn't there. this is one of the rare times when i thought to myself "this film is really well produced." i could tell that the producers of this film were committed more to the story than to the bottom line (i.e., profit). examples?...they hired the coach of the 1980 team that the film depicts as a consultant and dedicated it in his honor (he died shortly before the film was completed). i don't remember seeing any flags waving in the wind. they didn't hire big name actors to play any of the hockey players. in 1980 the olympics still required amateurs so none of the hockey players on the team were widely known...the same goes for the film. there were only two recognizable faces in the film - kurt russell played the coach (who in real life was the biggest star of the team since he coached a couple ncaa championship teams) and noam emmerich (who really isn't all that big of an actor) who played an assistant coach. again, if they had done a typical hollywood job on this movie you would have seen guys like josh hartnet or casey affleck or freddie prinze jr. instead the film adopts the philosophy of the team they are praising - it's more about the whole than it is about the individuals. and i really think that it works. there are some weak moments in the acting here or there (russell is actually very good), but as a whole the acting is sufficient  and the story carries whatever weaknesses the film may have elsewhere. the filmmakers (wisely) allow the story to shine on its own. like seabiscuit, the film places the story within its historical context and it does this because the story calls for it. rather than making it into a cold war allegory for the sake of plucking on our sense of patriotism, the film neatly places the story in its appropriate backdrop because it belongs there. it does not make the mistake of simplifying things either - it shows both sides of the cold war - there are those who want our team to beat those commie bastards and there are those who recognize that it's just a game and basically just wish we could all get along. if the film was made 15 years ago i think it would have been more successful, but it wouldn't have been as good and mature as it is. i also like the fact that they treated the win against the USSR as the climax of the film despite the fact that it was the next game (against finland) that was for the gold medal. most people might consider a gold medal game as more important, but in reality the silver medal game against the USSR was a bigger upset and more memorable. a very fine film. B+.

Thirteen- a cross between "kids" (a very good film) and "tart" (a very bad film). "kids" was sort of the landmark film in terms of films that (honestly) addressed growing up in single parent households or growing up as a "latch-key" kid. "kids" took place in urban nyc and dealt with lower class teens, whereas tart took place in nyc, but deal with the elite. this movie takes place in los angeles and deals with a lower middle class family - they have a home, but don't have money to burn. the first thirty minutes of the film are pretty awful. in the beginning the film parades all the stereotypes and uses an annoyingly active camera to hype everything within the frame. editing and camera movement are indicative of a pseudo-cinema verite style and, to me, it was way over the top and contrived. think of the bad parts from "dangerous minds" and you'll get an idea. but, thankfully, the rest of the film got away from the "style over substance" philosophy that the first half hour employed. perhaps the first part of the film was saying "here's what most films do with this material..." and the second half added "but here's how it actually is." or, perhaps, it was just an error of judgment.  at any rate, the last hour of the film really saved it. whereas the first part of the film went over the top with the "urban" music to illustrate the gritty realities of the school yard, the second portion of the film let the realistic actions of the teens speak for themselves. whereas the first part used hand held cameras, excessive editing, and passé zooms to give the feeling that we were part of the action, the second portion let us in by showing us the real vulnerabilities and complexities of the characters. in the denouement (i just had to use that word) the film drops out all the reds in the picture to leave a stark blue look as things unravel completely. it works very well. the epilogue is only a few seconds long, but is appropriate and, i think, a nice cap to the film. in kids the epilogue showed the streets of new york from the view of a moving car and ended with casper saying something like "what the hell happened." this film's epilogue says the same thing, but not literally. the protagonist is spinning on a merry-go-round and she lets out a scream as if things are out of control. holly hunter had a strong performance and the others mostly held up their end. i've only seen three of the five supporting actress performances, but having looked over the nominations, i think hunter has a good shot at winning. i really wish that the first part of the film was done differently because it almost lost me completely, but the last hour of the film was really good so i'll give it a B. p.s. i think the review on allmovie.com misses the mark, but you be the judge.

The Gods Must Be Crazy - it really is a gem. the comedy is mostly slapstick in nature and, even though there isn't all that much of it, it's definitely funny. despite having only spurts of comedy, the film stays interesting throughout because the plot and other themes are robust enough to hold the audiences attention. it's predominately a comedy, but it is also part romance and part social commentary. the romance aspect of the film falls, more or less, into the comedy genre convention. a hapless hero ends up saving a woman and, despite his being a klutz, they fall in love. the social commentary portion is what, to me, really makes the film a classic. the film comments on both the hilarity and arbitrary nature of our technological society. we create tools to help us live an easier life, but as a result we have to go to school for 12 years of our lives just in order to learn how to live. we, the audience, see how silly our civilized lives are by viewing it through the eyes of xixo (the protagonist) who is completely cut off from society until a coke bottle lands at his feet. the introduction of this one-of-a-kind object into his small village leads to heretofore unknown problems - greed, the idea of property, envy, violence, etc. in contrast to the bushmen of the kalahari desert, we look like utter fools who live an illogical life of contradictions. in addition to all of the above, there is another plotline interwoven into the story. we also follow a band of revolutionaries on the run from the government officials they just tried to murder. it may seem out of place, but it works to move along the plot, show a bit of contemporary african society, and provide further contrast to xixo's increasingly attractive simple life. B+.

Casino- the heavy use of voice-over is my only gripe with this film. i thought it was a bit over-used, but i also think that it fit well with the flow of the film. the film is very musical in its structure and style. so much so that much of it played out like a narrated music video, but with a lot more class than is usually associated with the "music video" title. i think there were only a couple pieces of music written for the film, which is unusual, especially for an epic (the film is just shy of three hours and chronicles the rise and fall of the mob in las vegas so i think it qualifies). a lot of people seem to think that casino is just a remake of goodfellas, set in a different place, but i think that casino stands on its own because it does have a different approach to the genre. it's undoubtedly a scorsese film, but it is different from goodfellas. i'd have to see goodfellas again to make a case, so just trust me. sharon stone is great as are deniro and pesci. i don't have a strong case for this, but i'll put it out there anyway...to me this film sort fits into a crime-noir genre. it begins with the apparent death of deniro, it has a clear femme fatale, the vast majority of the film takes place either inside or outside at night, and it paints a cynical view of life (las vegas is turned into a consumerist hell hole, pesci dies, stone dies, deniro escapes death, but is seriously demoted...) A-.

Graduate- this is an insanely good film; it's so good that i'm pretty certain that i'll never see a film as good ever again. i'm just going to write in fragments about my utter joy in watching the film since there's too much to address and i'm not in the mood to form an essay. as entwined as the music and images are we only hear one simon and garfunkel song (during the opening credits) through the first 38 minutes of the film. after that we get a couple musical interludes, one of them being the driving sequences which are great and make me want a convertible alfa romero. the film starts with ben on a plane landing in LA, so does die hard which is another of my favorite films ever. after that the credits begin and he's on a people mover...he's moving, but he's not propelling himself...a consistent theme throughout the film. nichols uses a lot of off camera dialogue. in some cases it's to move along the plot or tell us something about ben or a situation, but often it's because the camera is still. i'd have to watch it again, but i think that the camera is still when ben is, or maybe wants to be, because the camera sort of echoes ben in some ways. nichols uses a lot of zooms, usually to show a character amongst a great background. for example, mrs. robinson in the scene after ben tells elaine the truth, or ben when he's in berkeley at the fountain. none of the adults have first names, but all of them have opinions on what ben should be doing with his life. on two occasions (both before significant steps towards the affair) mrs. robinson makes her entrance on film through a reflection. once on a table and once on a piece of glass. i think that the slowest part of the film is the time spent in berkeley when ben is courting elaine. in most romantic films this would be the bread and butter. water seems to play a big role in the film. the most obvious manifestation of this theme comes in the pool sequences. the first being when ben gets the diving suit  and is forced to the bottom by his father, and another being when he's floating on a raft and his parents are in the pool circling him like sharks while trying to convince him to take out elaine. this time he gets off the raft and swims to the bottom on his own accord. some of it's pretty obvious, some of it isn't, but it's all natural within the film. nichols and henry never go out of their way to work a symbol into the plot. i've gotten this far and i haven't mentioned the humor of the film. though i wouldn't personally call it a comedy (because of how it begins and ends and what it is ultimately about), it does have plenty of comic relief. again, like die hard...an action film with more comedy in it than 98% of the comedies out there. in its broadest stroke the film is about coming of age or finding oneself. more specifically it's about breaking out of the mold of the older generation or that which came before you. and i think that's why the ending works so well. beyond ben trapping the adults in the church (what an exceptional scene) is the fact that once they're on the bus they realize what they've done. slowly their faces change from pure happiness to a reserved optimism because they know that technically elaine is married and that the romanticism of hollywood may not actually be a panacea, but they've still struck out on their own. and, ultimately, that's why i know i'll love this movie for the rest of my life...because it's not just a movie about the foolish optimism that comes with being young - it's more about doing things on your own terms and finding your own path. A+.

American Splendor - a movie based upon a comic book which is based upon the real life of harvey pekar, a comic book artist. i think that the most noteworthy aspect of the film is the way they layered real documentary footage of harvey pekar, archived footage (like his interviews with david letterman), and comic book illustrations with the acted part of the film. most of it was acted (rather well), but there was plenty of overlapping from the other sources that made the film a sort of pastiche representation of harvey pekar. it was more than just a novel device though. it took the represented image of pekar to the next level. without getting into a philosophical discussion of the reality of representing someone within film or other media, let it suffice to say that we can't ever really know pekar and the film sort of played on that, while (almost paradoxically) deepening our understanding of who he is. since, up to this point, we've only know of him through the letterman show and his comics, it makes sense that a film be made to add another dimension of understanding to this man. i don't know if those last couple lines made sense. let me give a longer explanation. harvey pekar writes a comic book about his life, but he's a shitty artist so he has r. crumb illustrate it. but he also has a bunch of other people illustrate it. so, depending upon the artist, pekar looks like a monster or hermit or a Brando-esque hero. the same could be said about documentary filmmakers (read my derrida review below). this film acknowledges the limitations of a fictionalized representation of a man. to some, val kilmer is more jim morrison than jim morrison is because they have only experienced morrison through his music and the fictionalized representation known as oliver stone's "the doors." in american splendor the filmmakers are mostly working within "the doors" mold. however they also include archival footage of the real harvey pekar, as well as comic book illustrations of harvey pekar interacting with the actor (giamatti) who portrays pekar, as well as interviews with the real harvey pekar about the making of the film itself. it's a form of vertical integration within film. as a french fry business might own every aspect of the production and selling of french fries (from the potato farms to the processing plants to the packaging factories to the distribution), this film integrates every step of the creation of a representation of a person into the film. still clear as mud. oh well. in terms of how it was made, i don't think i've seen anything like it. beyond that, it's a fine film. giamatti is really good, the soundtrack works well for the character and, though it didn't bring me to tears, the story is compelling enough. B.

Shane - there are some films that have a good reputation for no apparent reason. this isn't one of them. it opens with the shot of a valley, from behind the camera we see shane's horse arrive. a similar shot was used in seven samurai (two years later), but the bad guys came into frame rather than the good guys. kurosawa also seemed to like the strangers helping strangers theme that was addressed in this film. there weren't any real weaknesses in this film. i enjoyed the score - it wasn't too subtle or too over-the-top - for me it was just right. the sound was also noteworthy. in the outdoor scenes there was always a good layering of birds chirping, water running, cows mooing, etc. - it had all the sounds of a paradise. the bar room brawl was one of the best i've ever seen...it was really well edited and shane kicked some major ass. the story isn't anything spectacular or new, but it's not weak either. again we have a hero who has a shady past (like john wayne in the searchers or doc holiday in gunfight at the o.k. corral or eastwood in unforgiven). by the end of the film shane cannot deny what he is and resorts to his old gunslinging days to restore order to the frontier. the story is told mostly through the eyes of young joey who immediately looks up to shane. joey is the audience. it would be interesting to view the film in a post-war context. i think it makes a good case for both the collectivism of the ussr and the individuality of america. it addresses the neccesity of violence, but hopes for peace. there's a lot to the film whether you view it as a parable or strictly as a fine piece of filmmaking. i think, though, that the filmmakers intended it to be viewed as a story that is larger than life. stevens consistently returned to the grandiose images of the mountains, which to me indicated a linking of the story to something greater than the story itself. B++.

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - quite simply a great film. it's a western, but it has shades of film noir. most people mark 1958 as the official end of film noir, but those people bother me. those are the same people that won't admit that 'fugitive on a chain gang' is a film noir despite coming before the term was coined. all the actors play their parts really well. stewart and wayne are especially brilliant. it starts with the typical shot of the horizon, but is broken by the train cutting through the middle of the frame, smoke billowing out of the smokestack; which is a break from what seems to be the norm of men on horseback on the horizon. the vast majority of the film is a flashback, though there is no voice-over or reverting back to the present. a wise choice. i've been intrigued by the choice to tell a story when you already know that the main character is dead/dying (e.g., citizen kane, american beauty, ikiru, and the killers) or fatally injured/in trouble with the police (e.g., double indemnity). in most of these cases we're talking about a film noir which means telling the story this way reinforces the fatalistic philosophy that dominates the genre. in american beauty and ikiru it has an opposite effect. we are all mortal and this is addressed immediately so what becomes important is the journey, rather than the destination. but none of that matters if the rest of the film is schlock...the marshall, peabody and others provide an excellent steady course of comic relief that keeps things balanced. but the real meat of the film are the two leads - wayne and stewart who both revolved around the axis of the film - vera miles' character. i'm going out on a limb here. she symbolized purity and was probably the character closest to the audience. wayne (the old school of western thought) lead with the gun and had her heart at the beginning (chronologically) of the film. stewart isn't short of bravado, but wields it in a much different manner, choosing to fight back with a law book in hand. he teaches hallie to read and slowly we (hallie and the audience) are converted to stewart's style. in the end, though, it turns out that wayne is a necessary evil of sorts. though he is relegated to self-loathing in the shadows for the last 30-40 minutes of the movie, we come to realize what sacrifice he has made for stewart and our way of life. as nicholson (in a few good men) says "you want me on that wall, you need me there." ultimately it's a good, balanced story that ends up being rather touching. one of ford's last films and it doesn't seem that age had hurt his genius one bit. B++.

Winchester 73 - as the title indicates this film is more about an object, and what it represents, than the people within the film. the object (the winchester 1873 rifle) is, in many ways, a more important player than the human characters in the film. in fact, the characters are mostly just archetypes, and thus symbols for ideals beyond the individuals and their issues. surely i don't mean to make petty the struggles of the individuals, but given the biblical nature of the story and the fact that the camera always draws the eye to the rifle, i think that there is certainly something more at stake here than a man (stewart) trying to recover his weapon. it could be a cold war allegory like high noon, or a more abstract/universal morality tale about greed and the desire for power. like lord of the rings, which also made an object a primary character, winchester 73 need not be allegorical, but it is certainly applicable to many historical times or events. more superficially the story is just a darn good yarn. stewart's character isn't as dark and mysterious as john wayne's in "the searchers," but he also isn't a "shane." we get the sense that he's a good guy, but there is a mystery in his past that isn't revealed until the end. i never felt as though i wasn't on his side though, and this is why i think he's still a symbol. we feel from his very first act (standing up for shelley winters' character) that he's a good guy, even if there is something lurking in the background. i didn't see anything fantastic in the direction...the treatment of the rifle was good, but other than that nothing really popped out for me. but i'm admittedly not very good at detecting subtleties of style and such. B+.

Heat - what a movie. it's a crime drama, for sure, but it's more of a character study than it is a typical crime drama. every single one of the main characters is multi-faceted. i love movies that show the shades of gray. i think that everyone watching the film wanted there to be some way for both pacino and deniro to win in the end, but that's impossible since they're in opposition. as characters, though, they are much closer to each other and that is completely realized in their meeting at the diner. i do wish that mann had covered that scene differently. i understand that he didn't want to miss anything and so he chose over the shoulder coverage which is pretty typical when two people are facing each other. but i just can't help but think that, given the fact that two of the greatest actors are in the same room together, there should have been more of an effort to capitalize on the energy they bring. i would have liked to see more of an attempt to capitalize on that by letting them run free and capturing whatever transpired using a steadycam or a handheld. to me that would have fit and it could have had an even better impact. other than that and a few bad music choices, i thought the film was fucking great. other things to note include the beginning which takes place on train tracks and the end which takes place on a runway. movement? transition?...i don't know. the last thing i want to explore is the way in which deniro is killed, or, rather, what it is that gets him killed. a light comes on and projects his shadow to pacino's feet, thus giving him away. it may be a reference to jung's idea of the "shadow"...the physical representation of the darkness within deniro's character becomes his ultimate undoing, and that which separates him from pacino. perhaps. we know that the characters are clear foils for each other. but they aren't alpha and omega. they may appear as such at the beginning...pacino with his wife, deniro pulling a heist. but as the film unfolds pacino's relationship dissolves and his obsession with his work takes a clear toll. meanwhile deniro develops a relationship with a woman which ends up being the driving force for him to go on "one last score." in the last minutes pacino leaves his wife in the emergency room and deniro is forced to leave his woman in the car wondering where he is going. pacino, at first, has the tactical advantage - acquiring a shotgun for the battle to come. but eventually it is just the two of them on the runway with pistols, as equals. and if all that is too much for you, this film features one of the best shoot-out scenes of the last 20 years. A.

Derrida - right off the bat let me say (write) that i had expectations of a more clinical examination of the thoughts of derrida, rather than a look at his life and thoughts in a personal documentary more like "stevie" than what you might see on pbs. a lot of the first part of the film is dedicated to examining what heidegger once said about a philosopher's biography - the important things are he was born, he thought, he died...everything else being anecdotes and details. well this documentary seemed to have more of those anecdotes and details than i think derrida or heidegger would have liked, but maybe that was the filmmakers' way of challenging this notion. the point of the quote is that on the one hand you can't get to know someone through incidental stories about their childhood, but on the other hand this is what storytelling and filmmaking (especially documentary filmmaking) is often about. derrida rightly observes, too, that the film is more of a signature of the filmmakers than a biography of himself. so i'll go on, now, to examine the filmmakers...like i mentioned before, i wish there had been more focus on the ideas of derrida in a linear or instructive fashion. i expected to gain a better understanding of the main tenets of his philosophy. but, as an example, "differance," which i know to be a large motif in his deconstruction, was mentioned only once...fifteen minutes before the ending of the film. that main disappointment aside, the film was well done. i do feel i "know" derrida better. his ideas are still murky, but in seeing how he answers questions or examines his body parts (specifically his eyes and hands) i got a good idea of how he thinks, which in a lot of ways is more important than what he thinks. the most interesting idea that i picked up in the film wasn't derridean (?) at all - it was an ancient greek/roman (?) story of echo and narcissus. i think i had heard the story many years ago, but i didn't remember anything about it until he retold it. echo was doomed to only repeat the last part of what other people said. eventually she used this curse to adopt a language based upon what narcissus said...combining the end of certain words that narcissus used to form her own language. philosophically it's interesting because it speaks to several ideas - we're just repeating that which has already been said, everything beyond plato is a footnote, nothing new under the sun, we are all so intrinsically connected to that which came before us that "improvisation" (as derrida calls it) is impossible, but should still be sought after. it's a story that's ripe with meaning. i took it as a justification for hip-hop as a viable form of music. hip-hop artists manipulate musical language the same way that echo did. derrida and other deconstructionalists would likely point out that hip-hop artists are just one step closer to echo than other artists who try to hide their references or influences. anyone who understands music knows that if you're going to get on public enemy's case for sampling then it's a slippery slope before you start criticizing elvis, the beatles, and everyone else. you can argue over the degrees, but i don't think you can knock the entire practice. at any rate, the film is good precisely because it incites this kind of thought. though i went into it expecting a schooling, i came out wiser precisely because it sought not to lecture. B. p.s. an interviewer asks him a question about the philosophy of seinfeld and how it might be seen as deconstructionalist. he had never heard of seinfeld, but said that deconstruction isn't about watching sitcoms. "people should read and do their homework instead."

Best Years Of Our Lives - a damn good movie. cinematically the most prominent feature of the film was the deep focus. there were several scenes where critical action occured in both the front and rear of the frame. the film wasn't just bells and whistles though, actually it was quite the contrary. it has the second best wedding scene that i can remember in film (the best belonging to the finale of the graduate, of course). and it told a great story about what, in a lot of ways, was a very great time for our country. there are a lot of impacting and affecting scenes and i think that they succeed because the filmmakers kept things as truthful as possible. there are countless memorable and affecting scenes...the wedding scene, the scene where homer shows wilma what it's like preparing for bed without and hands, fred's parents reading his letters of commendation, etc. sure the music swells and you know you're supposed to be feeling something, but as happens in casablanca, we are affected because something touches us, not because the we are told to. each sympathetic character is a real person, with inner conflicts and feelings and that is what adds to the depth of, and our love for, the person. my one complaint might be that while the sympathetic characters were lifelike, the villians of the film were not. fred's wife, marie, was basically a cardboard cutout of a money-grubbing wannabe socialite. the man who spoke out against the war at the soda bar was also treated rather plainly. good filmmaking and storytelling aside, this film acts as a valuable historical document. if i were a history teacher and i wanted to show a film to segue from WWII to the post-war prosperity, this would be it. not only does it show what we were like as a society at the time, but it provides a good contrast to the post-vietnam era when veterans were spit on and shunned. a necessary film. B+.

Basket Case - another classic cult "b" horror flick. this one follows duane who comes to nyc carrying a basket with him wherever he goes. in the basket, we soon find out, is his siamese twin brother who was separated from him at the age of twelve because he was basically just a head and two arms - a "freak." as you can tell this film has plenty of potential. i love these b horror films and the crazy ideas they come up with. granted the filmmaking itself isn't always the best, but it is spirited. duane and his freak brother are in nyc to get revenge against the doctors who performed the separation procedure. in the process duane develops a romantic interest and his brother (who can speak with him telepathically) doesn't like this fact. there's a definite sense of repressed sexuality within the film. duane's brother possibly representing his castration. oh, and their mother was killed in the birthing process and at the age of twelve their father gave the green light to the surgery. duane and his severed brother (who survived the surgery and being thrown in the trash) kill the father shortly after the surgery...fairly oedipal. the culmination of this repressed sexual energy is realized when duane's severed brother goes to duane's romantic interests house to rape and kill her. all this takes place amongst a new york city background that isn't quite taxi driver, but is rather seedy and depraved. it's a good film for what it is. which is to say that it's definitely not for everyone, but if you're a fan of evil dead or bloodsucking freaks or other slightly humorous shock flicks then this might do it for you. B-.

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? - this film reminds me of two things - 1) a short story by raymond carver called "what we talk about when we talk about love" because of the strong influence that alcohol has on the story, and because of the fact that it's about two couples (as i recall) sitting at a table talking about love and other things and 2) douglas sirk films because of the way he slowly peeled away, layer by layer, exterior that hides our deepest darkest thoughts; revealing just how sick and dysfunctional we can be. at the same time this film is fairly unique. it's mike nichols' first film and he shows the potential that was later realized in "the graduate." a couple crafty edits here and there and some nice camera touches - off angle compositions as well as some good zoom work, a good command of deep focus, and focus pulls - the last three comprising a large portion of what would become his visual style in the graduate. watching this film it's hard to believe that elizabeth taylor ever looked as good as she did in "giant," and that is a testament to the makeup crew. her character was really well established and deserving of the oscar she got, quite a performance. though she was the standout performer, all four of the actors did a fine job in their roles. the story itself is sort of a nightmarish downhill descent without brakes. in the graduate we see the older generation as a hindrance to the younger one, in this film, too, we see the elders having a definite negative influence on the younger generation. towards the end i noticed that the camera seemed to be off axis when martha and george were aligned, and on axis when they were oppositional. i'd like to watch it again just to test that hypothesis. for a movie that has only four characters and three settings, and is laden with dialogue, it moves along pretty well. i think that's because there is mystery in there - just how far will these people go, why are they doing this to each other, and where is the truth? a good film. B+.

Bloodsucking Freaks - sardu's theater of the macabre specializes in shows depicting the torture and death of girls. in the opening scene sardu speaks to the audience (and also to us) saying that if this is too much for you then remind yourself that it's not real, and if it's not enough then imagine that it is. there are comments from the audience like "that's not real" and "that's not art," etc. this all serves as an introduction to the film and provides a frame for what we are about to see. what follows is some truly macabre stuff. at one point a "doctor" drills into a woman's head, inserts a straw and drinks the contents. at another sardu and his midget henchman use a woman's butt as a dartboard. some of the other gags are funny ala dead alive, but most of it is trying to be shocking, not funny. to write it off as a shock flick like "faces of death," or something along those lines, would be too easy, and ultimately incorrect. because of the framing that the first few minutes provide and some references throughout, there are actual issues raised here. what is art, what is exploitation, what is funny, and what is depraved? that's for each person to decide. i thought it had a little bit of everything. it clearly objectifies women and some would be offended by that. were the actors themselves being exploited? why are you watching this film? are you one of those who the theater critic character alluded to who watch a show because you've heard how obscene or shocking it is? i am. i watched the movie because it was referenced as one of the most shocking films of all-time. i have no qualms about that. i think this is an easy film to write off as trash, but it's a harder film to recognize for what it is: a fairly well-done independent cult film that is mildly entertaining, partially exploitative, partially funny, partially philosophical and ultimately fairly challenging. it's a gray world, people. B.

School of Rock - this is probably the last thing i would have expected from richard linklater as a follow-up to "waking life". the role had to have been written for jack black - he's absolutely perfect for it considering his musical background and his brand of humor. even the kids in the movie do a good job - they're cast well and the roles are well-written enough to give each one his/her own character. the setting is perfect - the uptight kids in the private school contrasting with the exuberance and wild ways of jack black who reveals rock music as the great liberator from the rules of "the man." joan cusack does a great job as the uptight principal who's waiting to be liberated. it's hard to end a comedy. a lot of times that's when the serious stuff needs to be resolved or sometimes screenwriters write themselves into a corner to suit the comedy and the plot suffers. as a result the endings of comedies have a tendency to be anti-climatic, uncharacteristically uncomedic, or half-baked. dr. strangelove is the best ending to a comedy i can think of because everything that preceded it led up to that ending and it managed to stay funny to the last second. school of rock suffers a bit from the usual ending-syndrome that comedies have, but rebounds during the credits....a technique that meet the parents also employed - showing outtakes to get the laughs flowing again. in school of rock it's an extended jam session with jack black and the kids that works well to cap off the film. 80 million bucks in the box office is pretty good, but i would have expected more since jack black is hot and since it's a family friendly film. at any rate, it's probably the best linklater film to date revenue-wise which means he may continue to get funded for his more serious efforts, like waking life; and that's a good thing. overall, a well-done movie with plenty of laughs. B+.

Ikiru 1952 - there are only a handful of films that have this kind of impact on me upon first viewing. it's easy to see why this is considered by many to be kurosawa's masterpiece. the first third sets up the primary characters, the situation of a dying man who has yet to live life, and the relationships (father/son, government/people, etc.) that progress throughout the film. the middle third is largely concentrated on watanabe dealing with the realization of his own mortality and searching for a meaningful experience. the last third is told after his death in a style that is reminiscent of "citizen kane" (1941) and "rashomon" (1950) before it, and "broadway danny rose" (1984) after it. his co-workers reminisce over the last five months of his life. it's here that the film really shines. all the investments of the first 1hr 45minutes are paid back. i don't really know what to else say about it other than it's some of the most moving footage i've ever seen in film. it's depressing, uplifting, fatalistic and optimistic all at once. it's like the last part of rashomon, only longer and better. if you'll remember in kurosawa's telling of rashomon the three men are disgusted by humanity and all that they've just discused regarding the crime that was committed. the rain lifts at some point and they discover a baby. one of the men vows to take care of it - interjecting a bit of humanity in an inhumane world. i think kurosawa and i are pretty similar. we both see a very dark side of humanity, yet ultimately have the highest hopes for it. A. by the way some of the faces in this film are just amazing. watanabe's character is the obvious one, but the restauranteur who tries shutting watanabe up also has a great face for his character. there's so much to be said about this film. the soundtrack wasn't as prevalent as it was in yojimbo, but when it was there it definitely made its presence felt and truly added to the emotion of the scene. two examples are the final scene and the scene wherein a fellow patient reveals to him the symptoms of advanced stomach cancer - thus notifying watanabe that he is going to die. i'll take notes next time.

Blood Simple - a pretty damned good first film. it's no citizen kane, but then again the coen brothers have gone on to do better things than welles did after citizen kane. i think the shot from pulp fiction of john travolta falling into bed after shooting up was lifted from a similar shot in this movie. when watching this film there's no doubt that whoever is behind it knows their shit. joel and ethan coen not only spin quite a yarn, they do it with a unique and powerful voice. one aspect of the film was particularily intriguing - the ceiling fans. i think there are three different ceiling fans in the film - one in each of the main actors' primary locations. i don't honestly remember. but what the coen brothers did with them was pretty interesting and that aspect alone is probably worth watching the film again. they changed the rotational speed on the fans according to the intensity of the scene or segment of the movie. they brought the sound of the fans into the foreground quite a bit. and at one point a fan that was rotating counter-clockwise through the entire film, changed directions. after that moment visser's character took on a more sinister and proactive role - i doubt it was a mistake. the camerawork was really good. it was shot almost like a horror film - the active camera, the edits they used, the extreme low and high angles - all keeping things fresh and surprising. i can't remember a coen brothers film in which the camera is as active as it is in this movie. lots of good stuff here. almost a clinic on fimmaking. A-.

21 Grams - sort of a cross between magnolia and pulp fiction, but not as good as either. like magnolia, it's a story about several characters who are all linked in someway by death. though i suppose in a way it's more like that awful film "the hours" in that it shows each person affected by a death - the murderer, the victims, the victims' family, and the lucky sap who gets the donor heart from one of the victims. in "the hours" it was about the writer of a book, a person being affected by the writing and a person who was living the life of the written story. how exciting. it was like pulp fiction to a lesser extent. it messed with time...telling the different stories without regard to time. one moment we're seeing things in chronological and the next we'll get a glimpse of the end of the film. it never got very confusing, which was a success of the editing and direction, but i didn't really get the feeling that messing with the time structure was necessary.
it was a very indie film, in style - lots of handhelds, lots of jump cuts (showing a person standing and then cutting to them sitting down, from the same angle...just a second or so cut out), and it appeared to be shot using digital cameras. there's a certain aesthetic to the indie style, but i'm not sure i always like it. for example, what's the point of showing someone standing and then cutting out the half second of film that comes as they decide to take a seat. perhaps it has become a convention. perhaps the convention started because independent filmmakers didn't have the resources for multiple takes so they would just cut out a half second her or there where the untrained actor looked at the camera, or where the film was damaged, or etc. i don't honestly know, but if you can explain what it adds to the film i'd be happy to hear it.
none of the characters were sympathetic and that was both good and bad. good because it allowed me to look at the primary theme of the film (death) in a more detached way. and bad because by the end of the film i just wanted it to end - i didn't care what was going to happen with them. the performances were good, but again i didn't care about sean penn's character enough to cry when he cried or smile when he smiled. that was true for all of the characters - to varying degrees. additionally, the film sort of felt like a vehicle for best acting nominations - it wouldn't surprise me at all to see four best supporting actor/actress and best actor/actress nominations.
amores perros (also directed by inarritu) was about several different people who experienced love, and loss thereof, in different ways, whereas 21 grams was about several different people who experienced death in different ways. the difference is that amores perros felt genuine and had characters who were both real, in that they had defects, and sympathetic, because they exhibited humanity amongst the inhumanity of the world. 21 grams was too unbalanced to be as good as it should have been. sometimes affecting, but ultimately more affected. C+
Rollerball - given the source material and the fact that john mctiernan directed it, one would have had high hopes for this remake of the 1975 classic. unfortunately this movie goes wrong at just about every possible turn. they completely re-worked the screenplay, they hired a bunch of pretty faces and made it into an action film. the soundtrack was wretched, the acting was piss poor. now i know that rebecca romijn-stamos and chris klein can act since i've seen femme fatale and the election in which each did a fine job, but this script didn't leave much room for good acting. i know that john mctiernan can direct well when given the proper material since i've seen hunt for red october, predator, and die hard. but nothing could have helped this film - it had studio production written all over it. almost all of the social commentary about mega corporations, the control of information, apathy of the masses, the exploitation of violence, etc. are gone. some of it is touched upon, but it's not nearly the film that the original is. they try to throw in a love story which felt like a hang nail i couldn't pull off. they exploit the violence themselves which is just lame. there were some shots that were well done thanks to mctiernan, but the film didn't succeed even as an action flick. a movie that shouldn't have been made. it didn't make very much money, made everyone involved look bad, and tarnished the reputation of one of the better 1970s films. the ending to the original is likely a top 50 ending of all-time...the playing of bach on the organ, the freeze frame of james caan...good stuff. D-.

Killing - reason number one (of more than 12,000) to hate poodles. what a fucking film. probably my favorite film noir of all-time. first things first. sterling hayden is absolutely brilliant. his performance here may be even better than his performance in dr. strangelove (which by the way has five the best 25 comic performances of all-time peter sellers times three, sterling hayden and george c. scott). the direction is completely solid. the scenes between elisha cook and his on screen wife are a great example. when he is dictating the conversation the camera is on his side and when she twists things to his side the camera swings to her side, or they will change physical position within the frame. it's just good film making. the score is well done (by gerald fried who also did paths of glory), especially the finale (top 25 ending of all time?). one of the more noteworthy aspects of the film is the way it played with time. the heist scene was approached from three different angles and kubrick would break the scene right at apex of the action from their viewpoint. for example, we follow timothy carey (more on him later), who is responsible for bringing down the horse, up to the point where he does his job. after his job is done the chronology rewinds and follows another person as they perform their pre-heist duties. the end effect is that we see the moments leading up the actual stealing of the money a few times...thus extending the suspense during the actual act. timothy carey (who is also in paths of glory) is one of those rare actors (like woody allen or steve buscemi) who is completely unique. i love the ending in the movie...it's so thoroughly film noir. there's one really cool shot that i wanted to mention. the camera is on the inside of an office and pointed towards a door. the door has a window on it and the lettering reads something like "chess and checkers club," but the lettering isn't reversed. i thought i had caught kubrick in a mistake here since the lettering is meant to be read from the outside and we're looking at it from the inside. hayden opens the door from the outside, closes it and walks towards the camera. as he gets closer the camera pulls back and we see the the camera had been focusing on a mirror in the corner of the opening hallway. it allowed the audience to easily see what the lettering said, allowed for one static shot that showed the room we're about to enter and also showed that hayden was coming in. efficient, technically sound, artistic and just plain cool film making. A+.

Unforgiven - no matter how you look at this film you must acknowledge that it's a landmark in the western genre. from the beginning the film is a study in storytelling 101...within a minute of introducing a character you know what the person is about - what his motivations are, what problems he must solve by the end of the film, etc. this not to say that the characters are simple - they're anything but. in fact i'd say that a major theme in the film, for me anyway, is the grayness of things. eastwood's character (Will) is neither wholly good or wholly bad. the same goes for hackman's (Bill) character, who is supposed to be the opposition to eastwood. i don't think the name selection of will and bill is random. i believe there is a conscious effort to show that in life characters aren't as easily categorized as they normally are in westerns. this western is a sort of bizarro western - it defies all sorts of conventions. eastwood can't ride a horse yet he is the hero. he's killed women and children, yet he is the hero. hackman is the sheriff, but he's no wyatt earp, nor is he the evil and corrupt sheriff. he's certainly not pleasant, but to my eyes he's not an abuser of power to the extent that would be expected from a typical western villian. after all, he's not the one who killed women and children and all he ever wants to do, it seems, is build his house. that doesn't make him jesus either, but you get my point...there's a lot of depth to the film. the cinematography is quite good, but not overly artsy or pedantic. unlike this review, the film isn't completely heavy in its tone. the first half, especially, has a good degree of comic relief which is good considering what comes in the second half. a fine and enjoyable film by any measure. A-. just looked at the allmovie.com info and noticed it got an oscar nomination for best sound. well deserved. it's not often that i notice the sound effects in a film, but this was one of those times. whoever worked on the sound did a great job.

Rollerball - NOT the 2002 version. though now that i've seen this version four or five times i'd like to see the 2002 version...especially since it was directed by john mctiernan (predator, die hard, and hunt for red october). the previews made it look awful. at any rate, this version, the original version, is quite good. i'd describe it as a cross between running man (starring our governor) and clockwork orange. running man because of the futuristic game that centers around violence and a clockwork orange because of a couple of the themes addressed and the good use of classical music. at over two hours rollerball is surprisingly well-paced. there are only three rollerball games that we follow, but they do a good job of keeping things interesting...ironically enough. ironic because part of the point of the film is to make a statement against violence as entertainment. a larger point of the film is to portray a possible future wherein corporations have taken over the role typically associated with governments. in this future decisions are made by the corporation and all individualism is shunned. jewison does a pretty good job of painting a picture of a repressed society. i would have liked it to be even darker, though. with all the repression and lack of individuality i would envision people acting out in all sorts of depraved ways. nonetheless, the film is directed quite well (especially the game sequences) and the allegorical tale of our potential future is a good one. B+.

Louisiana Story - another film from robert flaherty (nanook of the north and man of aran). the other two films i've seen from him are documentaries, whereas this one is pretty much a straight film (though it won and academy for best documentary). an argument could be made for man of aran as a documentary, but i don't think that this one qualifies. i think that flaherty works better within the documentary confines. perhaps this is because he needn't worry about developing a story or script - that comes naturally given the genre - and so he can focus more on the editing process and capturing the humanity of the characters. it's also possible that his venture into feature films came after he reached his peak. nanook of the north and man of aran had the similar theme of man's struggle to survive within nature. while they followed rather simple people using simple tools (harpoons and fish hooks mostly) this film introduces industry as man's tool in conquering nature. i must admit that this turned me off of the film a bit; it just didn't seem as pure. it's a beautiful film - the black and white photography really looks good (it was restored by the ucla film archive) and the shots are well composed. the story is told through the eyes of a young boy who wanders around the louisiana swamps on his canoe. he comes to admire the crew of the oil rig that has come to his part of the swamp to drill for oil as part of a deal his father has made with a business partner. the oil people's presence is given much more of a positive portrayal than i would have expected from flaherty. as i perused some of the dvd extras i discovered why this is...it turns out that standard oil commissioned the production and requested a film that showed the beauty of humanity and positive impact oil can have while being entertaining all the while. it's flaherty's best looking film and, again, the score is a highlight, but i think it's kind of a shame this had to be his final picture. B.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover - there's one thing certain about this film - it's not your standard fare. not only is the subject matter a bit out of the ordinary, but the style, too, is decidedly different. not better, or worse, or over-stylized, really, but different. half of it is shot like a filmed play...lots of scrolling dolly shots in front of three sets that are linked side by side. in the first half there isn't much three-dimensional camera movement like there is in most films and, with the exception of the bathroom scenes, the action takes place in the aforementioned group of three sets (outside, the kitchen, and the dining room). there's a definite concerted effort to use color, though i'm not entirely sure about the reasons. lots of red which i suppose could speak to two of the dominate themes - love and rage. at the half way point the film shifts a bit. in the first half horizontal movement was dominant (that scrolling i talked about) and in the second we see a lot more movement into the scenes (and into different scenery as well). the tone, too, has changed. the second half is decidedly serious whereas the first half, at least for me, was more comic because the excesses of the thief were directed towards less sympathetic characters. once we see his sadistic rage touch his wife in more than a passing way we can't go back to laughing about his tirades. it's a good looking movie that has plenty to like, but didn't resonate with me so much as to consider it great. i like what it offered me while i was watching it and i will remember its style and the some of the subject matter (i don't want to give it away, but it's not easily forgettable), but it didn't have that special something that would have made it great. oh, and i think this was the first film i've seen that was scored by michael nyman (piano - which i still haven't seen) and i liked his stuff...he's a minimalist like philip glass. B.

Lord of the Rings: Return Of The King - i'm new to the lotr story...i never read any of the books, i was a geek, but not that far gone. the first two films really blew me away, as you'll read below i love the balance of comedy, drama, romance, and action. the pacing, especially for films that are over three and half hours longs, is really good. now to the final installment of the trilogy. i'm not going to even comment on the most popular complaint that the film is too long. the second complaint that i anticipate is that the end dragged along too much. it did. but after i left the theater here's what i thought of it - it's an epic with all sorts of storylines to close off so it's going to take a while to properly wind things down. also, it seems the point of the voice-over narration from frodo, that the story never ends....certainly this ending gives this feel while providing a suitable conclusion to the series. the action sequences are pretty fucking crazy and deserve to be seen on the big screen. the philosophy of the series is deepened in the film....though to be honest i was viewing it more with the intent of following the story and such so i didn't have much time to think about the other levels. apparently there's one major scene that's cut out about the razing of the shire, but that should make it into the extended version of the dvd. this film deserves to be nominated for probably about 8-12 academy awards and it'll probably win the effects and sound ones, but i don't have enough faith in the academy to say it'll get picture or director. i don't think this is the best film of the trilogy...i've only seen it once, but i think it's probably about as good as the first one. the second one is my favorite. A-.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring - the following review is for both the films in their extended versions.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - there aren't many movie experiences that even after seven-plus hours, still leave you wanting more. i can't wait until 3:45 tomorrow afternoon when i get to watch the conclusion. it's just such a rich, full and epic tale. every character is appealing in some way. with film i'm a guy who values substance over style and these films have it in spades - thanks of course to the source material. the story is good and timeless in so many ways i won't even begin to document them here. on to the execution...i'm a fan of peter jackson. i thought that dead alive and bad taste were both very well done films, but both (especially bad taste) lacked a real story. granted, they are horror films which are traditionally slim in the plot and character development departments, but i point this out as way of saying how good a match this story is for jackson. i don't know what crazy new line executive hired jackson, whose film credits are rather limited, but they need a raise. putting jackson at the helm of what is probably a $200+ million project seems pretty gutsy to me. my only negative comments about the execution are the over-use of slow motion and that the theatrical cuts were pared back too much. the latter decision was probably made from above because releasing a movie that's 3hours and 43minutes long is tough to do, but there were critical scenes that were cut out of both films (especially the two towers). jackson's pacing was very good, the color coding in some of the scenes was especially efficacious, and the night scenes were shot extraordinarily well. the special effects were almost entirely seamless - gollum, especially, was a brilliant success. non-special (physical) effects were also used well. jackson incorporated a good combination of different camera lenses/angles and smart staging/editing to give the illusion that merry, pippin, frodo and gimli were much smaller that everyone else. gimli is played by the same guy who was sallah (indiana's guide) in raiders of the lost ark - you'll remember that in that movie he was made to appear even taller than harrison ford which makes the effect all the more impressive. i don't know that jackson is an amazing director, but he is gifted and you can tell that he knows his shit. should be interesting to see what he does now that the world has opened up for him. A.

Man of Aran (pronounced Aaron) - both allmovie.com and imdb.com call this a documentary, but that's a bit iffy. it's real footage of real people, but the action is sorta directed and the people aren't portrayed as they are in real life - the three main characters are supposed to be related, but aren't really. it's more of a documentary than "kids," which is a feature film that is shot like a documentary and most of the actors weren't doing much acting - rather they were sort of just playing themselves. maybe it's a documentary like koyaanisqatsi (or man with a movie camera) is a documentary - things are distorted or shaped by the director, but it's still real life; tough to say. enough of that though, on to the review. the photography is much better in this film than it was in flaherty's first (nanook of the north, which i also own). the black and white images are much sharper and the cinematography is far more advanced. nanook of the north was sort of an accident film for flaherty - he was in northern canada on some sort of expedition and sort of fell into being a filmmaker. at any rate, this film is a definite step up (in a technical sense) from nanook of the north. he uses montage, at least a couple different cameras, and has gotten even better at editing, making this film truly good - especially for its time (1934). i mentioned a few reviews ago that 'triumph of the will' was hardly impressing, even when taking into account the year of release. here's a film that proves my point - it was released in the same year, it's also a documentary (mostly), and it's probably ten to eleven times better than 'triumph of the will.' B+.

Waco: The Rules Of Engagement - does an excellent job of staying objective. a lot of the film is structured in a point/counter-point way to further the goal of objectivity. it's a bit longish and has a cheeseball score (there are some real corny violin and piano pieces that are supposed to tug at your heart strings). other than those minor gripes it's a worthwhile film. it presents a lot of information and doesn't make the answers clear. since most people (including myself) didn't get a full picture of what happened before and after those 51 days it's nice that this film exists. i think i know enough, now, to say that the government truly dropped the ball on this one. their reasons for going in were dubious and the way in which they executed the search warrant was excessive and inflammatory. the next 51 days were filled with deceit, politicking, and pr moves that seem pretty shameful in retrospect. the investigation that followed seemed doomed from the start. it's another sad time in the history of our government. despite what koresh and his people did or did not do, the truth remains that they were primarily within their rights and that the burden lies with the government. to me there were clear abuses of power and the agencies involved, namely the atf and fbi, should be reprimanded and ordered to apologize. B.
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner - a good film, of course, but it could have been more. granted we're talking about 1967 and my pushing this film to do more is a little silly - all things considered. the ensemble cast is very good - all the major players settle into their roles quite well. now some quibbles...the dancing scene with one of the black maids and the white delivery guy...what was that? very dated. also, more seriously...why were the two biggest opponents of the marriage both black? tillie and poitier's father were both against it. spencer tracy was also against it, but for seemingly more practical reasons. tillie basically called poitier's character the equivalent of an "uppity nigger." while the father was just plain against it. how realistic is this and what was the purpose? also issues of class were only barely hinted at. spencer tracy's character mentioned that poitier's father was a retired postal worker as if it was a good thing that poitier made something of himself. this was overshadowed by the references to the fact that poitier was a well-to-do doctor (granted he was mostly doing charity work, but he was obviously well off). i liked kramer's ability to meld drama with comedy...i didn't think it inappropriate; in fact i felt it offered a good counter-balance to the weight of the subject. overall a good film and a film that was certainly important for the time, but ultimately it didn't leave the world as harmonious as it came off. that is, the ending seemed to take the attitude of "well isn't it great that we've worked through these problems; we're good (though admittedly flawed) people." when, to me (and Martin Luther King Jr. for that matter), the larger issue of class was barely grazed. B.

Dersu Uzala - i don't even bother screening kurosawa films before i buy them...despite running the risk of wasting 20-30 bucks for the criterion collection dvds. i know kurosawa will deliver, so when i see a new kurosawa dvd i snatch it up. here, again, kurosawa renewed my faith in him (and in humanity). kurosawa does an excellent job of showing great individuals teaching or helping those in need. from seven samurai to dersu uzala that theme is carried. dersu's character is fantastically rounded and well acted (though i don't know how much acting there actually was). the relationship between dersu and arseniev is so instantly established...and that doesn't come from the opening scene wherein arseniev returns to the burial site of dersu three years after the fact, thus signaling the depth of their friendship. no, it comes from their first meeting and every interaction thereafter. it's not something i can necessarily describe, but it is there. sure their physical position within the frame, relative to the rest of arseniev's expedition, is close (often times dersu and captain arseniev are on one side of the frame and the others are on the other), but it goes much deeper than that. a good story (though not much of a plot) and a great study of man and nature. A-.

Branded To Kill - stylized 60s japanese hipster gangster film. probably influenced tarantino, among others. there's one scene wherein the hired killer dispatches a mark by shooting a bullet through the sink piping as the vic is leaning over the drain...not only is that sweet, it also was duplicated in jarmusch's "ghost dog: way of the samurai" thirty years later. the director (seijun suzuki) uses an odd editing style that jumps through time in an unconventional manner. if the rest of the film were as off kilter i'd site it as a weakness, but i think in the context of the rest of visual style it works. it takes getting used to since he also moves characters around between cuts, but i think that ultimately it contributes more to the style than it detracts from the logic of the piece. that is, there is enough gained in style to offset whatever brief confusion it may bring. it has elements of james bond (as i'm learning much asian cinema does...see master of the flying guillotine), german expresionism, and 60s euro hipster cool, but combines them in its own way. its influence can be seen in later films like the aforementioned ghost dog, john woo stuff, tarantino stuff and more. an enjoyable movie with plenty of respectable artistic vision, but doesn't crack the top three of 1967 (see below). looking forward to seeing it a second time. B+.

Stranger Than Paradise - i'm not sure why this is considered one of the most influential films of the latter half of the century...i suppose it's because it defined the deadpan style that so many indie filmmakers went on to imitate. in 1984 i suppose this movie was ahead of its time...now it's just another example of an artsy black and white indie film within which characters don't do much and aren't very happy. as unattractive as that may sound, this film actually does a really good job with it. the three characters are well acted and are given a life of their own as soon as we're introduced to them. the comedy is so deadpan one may not be sure whether to laugh or not, but go right ahead - there's some good stuff in this one. jarmusch deals with negative space like a sculptor might (and like andy warhol did) - he films that which is normally left out and it works somehow. the pacing is well done - he alternates from long shots with little or no camera movement/cutting to almost picture book scenes wherein there will be a few seconds of action followed by a fade to black. it's an interesting style that may or may not have a purpose outside of defining itself; either way it seems right. the ending was a bit of a question mark at first, but made sense after thinking about humorous fates of the hapless characters. i hope that the dvd gets a better treatment somewhere down the line. B.

Winged Migration - it's not an amazing film, but it is good. the cinematography looks good, but i wish they had used better cameras or film because the images weren't as crisp as they could have been and the color wasn't as vibrant as i would have liked. i may be nit-picking there, but for this kind of film paying attention to the technical details is pretty damn important. they used a good combination of capuring techniques - some of the shots were from one person aircrafts that flew alongside the birds, some of the shots were from boats, or from the ground - and they did a good job of drawing the viewer into the life of the birds. the movie itself is a cross between baraka and microcosmos...it doesn't have quite the socio/political commentary of baraka and doesn't have as high a quality of photography as microcosmos. unlike either film, winged migration chooses to have some narration and information. this was nice, but ultimately not very informative. it gave statistics on how far a certain species of bird migrates, but didn't go much beyond that. an overrated movie, but hopefully it'll draw attention to films like it. certainly there were nice things about the film...one can't watch birds for an hour and a half and not be intrigued at least a little bit, but that's testament to the subject matter, not the film. C+.

JFK - like everyone, oliver stone has a point of view and that factors into the product he is creating. he makes this obvious in natural born killers, born on the fourth of july, platoon and others. some might call this a detractor, but it is merely something to bear in mind. jfk is a necessary historical document...whether you agree with any of the conspiracy theories put forth (there are several that are addressed in the film) or not, you must acknowledge its importance as a social document. it brought to light an issue that had been dormant for many years and thus exposed the conspiracy question to another generation. i feel it is important to know the past because it is prologue (as the film points out), some might have you think otherwise. enough about the historical significance of the film onto the movie itself...it's a finely constructed work on all fronts - the screenplay is very well done - it balances several storylines without much confusion and provides varying points of view accurately and in a mostly balanced way. i think it's obvious that stone favors the "military industrial complex" conspiracy theory, but that's not because he contorts of facts to support that conclusion more, rather it's because he places the film within the context of general and president eisenhower's farewell speech (warning against the "military industrial complex"), america's past colonialist behavior, and the vietnam war. conspiracy theory or not, one must be absolutely thick-headed to view the facts presented in the film (and in the accompanying book) and not be very weary of the commissions conclusion that there was only one shooter acting alone. a well-done and compelling drama. A-.

Wages of Fear - another clouzot masterpiece. i'll put this and diabolique up against any two hitchcock films...they're that good. certainly a visionary and uncompromising piece - the ending was especially good and probably wouldn't be accepted by most modern audiences. the setting and overall scope of the picture borrow plenty from 'the treasure of the sierra madre.' treasure is a tighter film with a more obvious main theme, however both are layered in that they deal not only with the results of greed, but also with interpersonal dynamics - on the micro level (as seen between the four men we follow for most of the film) and on the macro level (as evidenced by the presence of the american oil company versus the indigenous laborers trying to unionize). what makes it so successful, for me, is that those things are in the background...the story and characters are in the foreground. just as is true in "skins"...the issues of culture or greed or differing life philosophies are present, but are a layer or two beneath the plot and characters. though a bit slow at the beginning, the film is nicely paced overall - it gives you time to look beneath the basics of the film, but keeps you interested all the while in what is going to happen next. that is, the plot and characters will carry you through the film just fine, but if you choose to examine things more closely you are given space to do that. i hadn't seen a clouzot film until this month, but now that i've seen two i'm hooked...this guy tells good stories, builds suspense about as well as i've seen, and knows how to end a film. B+. fyi: this was a review for the 148 minute unedited version, not the 138min us version.

Matrix Revolutions - spoilers ahead... the first two opened with trinity kicking ass and ended with a song by rage against the machine, they used the story and characters as a vehicle for the action (not vise-versa), and they let you suspend your disbelief without requiring you to turn off your brain. the third one didn't do any of those things. it went away from the matrix, it didn't have any new ideas, it didn't tie things up in a satisfactory way and as a result it just didn't work. there were too many scenes in zion, neo's powers grew too outlandish, for the first time there were characters i actually found annoying, and the religous motifs became too prevalent. in the first films the religious stuff was there, but it for you to decide what you wanted to do with it - i usually chose to just let it pass. in this film, though, they hit you over the head with it. on paper the end of the final film may have appeared to be the least corny of the three (since the other two were love can cure all type endings), but in reality the third film had the ending that played out to be most corny and, well, kinda lame. i'd like to watch it again, not because i think something will click and i'll all of a sudden love it, but because i want to understand further what they did wrong and what they intended. after the first two i feel i owe them a second viewing with this one. the action sequences were good and trinity kicked some ass, but overall it was a disappointment. C+.

Matrix Reloaded - this is what hollywood is good for. one must respect the production that went into making this film (actually this film and the final were made together so just consider them one production). it's comparable to building a skyscraper - an amazing number of sets (and these are small sets we're talking about - inside zion, the freeway, the museum sequence, etc.), a staggering amount of digital and physical effects, thousands of people from actors to production designers to computer geeks to sound people to...all collaborating to build this epic film. just as a technical achievement i am in awe. however, that's not what impressed me the most....all that was just the means to the end. great films are about much more than displaying their technical prowess...citizen kane isn't just about showing what film can do, it's about telling a great story using film as a medium. to me, the matrix does this. cornell west referred to the depth this film has and that's precisely what makes it such a good film - on the one level it's an amazing technical achievement, on the next level all that technical mastery goes towards a thoroughly enjoying roller coaster ride, and on several levels beyond that the film manages to be a great love story, a great parable of our times, a great philosophical journey, a great testament to the human spirit and on and on. there's seemingly no end to what can be read into this movie. they could have trimmed a few minutes of fat, but not much more than that...the beginning provided a good ramping up period and the action sequences were so exciting that trimming them, although logical, wouldn't have made my id happy. besides, with as much cerebral stuff as is presented throughout (especially near the end) we need a counterbalance. it's cut in a fine enough place for my taste...it's got me wondering what lies ahead. A.

Sanjuro - this might be my favorite kurosawa film to watch...yojimbo would be high in the running as well. kurosawa tells a story so so well. but the story isn't all this film is about...the characters (especially sanjuro himself) are great. he's such a wiley, thoughtful, and badass hero. there are echoes of westerns throughout, but as usual, it's not too derivative. themes of masculinity/feminity, what makes a true samurai/hero, good/bad, and loyalty are all addressed at interesting angles. sanjuro acknowledges his weaknesses, unlike many western heroes, and takes advice from the two main women characters in the film. he also doesn't care about keeping up proper appearances - he sleeps often, asks for money and doesn't fall into the generally accepted view of a proper samurai. as is true with any kurosawa film, the story has a lot to do with the psychology of humans and the story is very chesslike. the story never feels contrived and characters, though exagerated, are not fake. there's a lot of detail and richness to this film that i'd like to understand, but that'll come later. wipes, squares and doors are all used interestingly, but i don't know to what effect...yet. A.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 - you thought reservior dogs and pulp fiction were violent? i'll show you violent, says tarantino. but a lot of the violence here is cartoon violence, or "evil dead" type violence. it goes over the top for a laugh...at least a lot of it should. i think tarantino is playing with the audience a lot more in this movie than in his other films...and i like it. of course he's up to his old tricks - he plays with time, he references other films (including his own - jules from pulp fiction wanted to walk the earth like cain (sp?) and in this one david carradine plays someone who is trained by a japanese swordsman). the score is real good - combining both japanese cinema and spaghetti western styles. they had been married earlier, of course, but here it has it's own flavor. some will deride the film as too bloody or to referential (they always do), but this is a film made by someone who obviously loves cinema and wants to take you on a ride. so you're either on or not. B+.

Bloody Sunday - this film, shot in a documentary style, follows the major players in the infamous bloody sunday massacre of the early 70s. it's a good film because it captures the tension pretty well and tries to make the film-making process as transparent as possible. i don't know the details or background of the actual event so i don't know how acurate the film is, but it did seem pretty even keeled on the whole. it's a good story, and one that should be told, and the method was good, but for some reason i couldn't get really invested in it. maybe it's because the film seemed to overblow the proportions of the event....just like U2 have. any time 13 people die it's not a good day, but i don't understand why this event is so epic. but perhaps that's my fault, rather than the filmmakers'. though historical context would be have been nice, it may have gotten in the way. i'll try to learn more. either way the ending was a bit heavy handed, but was forgivable. B.

Lost In Translation - i still haven't seen virgin suicides, but i heard it wasn't all that special. if that's true then sofia coppola has repeated herself. this film has about one and a half good ideas: show johansson's ass a lot and hire bill murray. it was funny for a while, but only really had one gag - make fun of the differences in japanese culture. har har. one might spin it as making fun of americans not understanding japanese culture, in which case coppola would be making fun of her audience, but this claim isn't supported by the film so i conclude that she was just making cheap jokes about how wacky those japanese people can be. i don't know that i'd say she was being mean or hateful, but she wasn't being very creative either. that aside...the characters aren't all that impressive. both johansson and murray are seeking the same thing and it's a rather simple thing - "a simple prop to occupy their time." both were having marital problems and were in a foreign place all alone. i, personally, didn't feel that their connection was very real or deep; their relationship arose, not because of who they are, but because of their situation. i think this is mostly because of the script and/or direction (the acting was decent enough). i just never felt that the two characters really connected in any meaningful way. after about 45 minutes it really started to drag and that umbilical cord between the screen and me, that tarantino refers to, was severed permanently. C-.

Jackie Brown - good flick all-around. tarantino doesn't really make bad movies though, so i guess it should be taken for granted that this one is no exception. while it's not as good as pulp fiction or reservior dogs, it does stand on its own. adapted from a book by the same guy (elmore leonard) who did get shorty and a bunch of other book to film projects. the characters are round and superbly played by everyone on the cast. even though deniro is used to playing gangsters and outcasts he is usually a sympathetic character. in this one and a couple others (cape fear, for example) he shines as an ex-con low life without many redeeming characteristics. i think in most of his roles he plays someone you can at least say is competent in what they do (in cape fear you at least see that he's good at being a smart and creepy ex-con), but in this movie his character is relatively stupid AND a low life. in that respect it's a different role for him. i'm not one for finding plot holes, but why weren't the cops trailing pam greer's character when she was in the mall? seems like that would be s.o.p. when 50K is at stake. B+.

Irreversible - this movie is hardcore and certainly not for those who can't hack violence. that aside it's a great film. like memento (and the backwards seinfeld episode) in the way it's told. unlike memento, though, this film could have been made conventionally. memento just would have been lame if it was told chronologically...at least i think so. the first act of the film (the last thing that happens chronologically) is given much different meaning when structured this way. overall the reverse time choice is interesting and advantageous. like memento, though, irreversible doesn't rely on just this one trick to make the film worthwhile. the camerawork is integral to the pacing and feel of the film. the acting is very good as well. the soundtrack is done by one of the guys from daft punk. B+.
Bowling For Columbine - one of the major critiques of the movie is its ending and in my opinion, having seen it three times, he goes soft on heston. the fact is that heston is a bumbling idiot. he thought he was going to be playing softball with one of his own (moore is a member of the nra) and he was wrong. caught off guard he started giving explanations for gun violence like 'maybe it's the ethnic mixing.' the ending aside, the film is just great. you don't have to agree with its conclusion, but there are some great points and it puts forward an argument in a very cogent and well-prepared way. two of the montages are extremely impactful and the rest of the movie is insightful, funny and honest. A.

Keep The River On Your Right - documentary about a white guy who ventures deep into the forests of peru and comes out a cannibal. well that's the pitch anyway. he really only ate one piece of human meat and i don't understand why there was such a focus on this aspect of his trip. the real charm of the film is seeing him at age 78 going back to peru and new guinea to visit the places he once lived and studied. seeing the changes of the last 45 years. he has changed, the people he studied have changed and so has the landscape. the film really picks up momentum during the second half so stay tuned. i felt that the documentary film makers did a little too much prodding for my taste...i'd prefer they just sit back and document things than actively participate in their course. that aside, it is a well cut documentary which does a good job of presenting all the effects of one man's trip into the jungle.  B.

8 Mile - the first scene is the worst and the last scene is the best so that's a good thing. after the first five minutes, which were subpar, i forgot that eminem isn't a real actor...it's not that he was that great, but he did hold his ground and that was good to see. the love stuff didn't get in the way of the movie too much and the ending wasn't completely corny so the film was actually better than the high dvd sales and box office success would have you believe. because the movie was really only about one week in a wannabe rapper's life it didn't have the potential to become a picture about the greatness of eminem or a "look at me now" type of movie. instead it's a more personal look at eminem as a regular guy and because it didn't aim to inflate his image the film turned out to be...well, a film instead of vehicle for his superstardom. this wasn't anywhere near the complete and utter failure that anti-eminem people would have liked it to be. C+.

Body Without Soul - not for the timid. probably the most brutal documentary i've ever seen. it's about boy prostitutes in prague who make their living by turning tricks and acting in gay porn films. we meet several of the kids and one of the most popular porn gay porn directors in the region. this film truly is not for the faint of heart. it's tough to get through, but brutality and depravity are a part of life and that's easy to forget when you have a frig full of food and live in a city of 60,000. artistically the film was shot well, with a score that works well, but is probably over-used. the structure really does a good job of juxtaposing certain images and motifs to rather shocking results. B.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart - a documentary about the band wilco. they claim to be indie and have the morals indie rockers look up to. they claim to not be the kind of material fit for an episode of "behind the music", but that is all this movie essentially is. at one point (when they drop one of their members from the band) the film seems to take on a mockmentary feel. the manager is suddenly dressed in a turtleneck shirt with sunglasses (he's inside), the band is gathered around in their version of a sewing circle and both parties tell the audience their feelings on the recent loss of their bandmate. one member says "i've been friends with jay (the now ex-band member) for 16 or 17 years and i guess our friendship just ran its course. another member says he's happy jay is gone. the manager adds that the band is better without him. jay, when telling his side of the story, says that the singer told him that the band is a circle and can only have one center...implying that that center is the singer and that jay needs to leave. at first i thought they were having some fun and just playing a joke, but it soon becomes evident that jay is a goner and that this band (for several reasons) isn't that much different from the regular subjects of "behind the music." their talent is undeniable, but don't make them out to be indie rock's moral compass or any of that crap. the movie itself should be condensed into about 10 minutes. you find out very little about the group dynamics, the personalities involved, or the music industry in general. some of those things are lightly touched upon, but much of the time that could have been used exploring those was filled with them playing music. the major drama of the film - them trying to get their record released on their terms was dealt with in a rather murky way and actually reports from other sources are much more enlightening. the film itself is crap and the band leaves me utterly indifferent. i like their music and wish i hadn't sought to learn anything about its origins. D. what it comes down to is this: if you like the band a lot you'll find reason to like the movie, but if you are neutral or against the band then you probably won't be too impressed. they feel sorry for themselves a lot when really they're a pretty big band with lots of options and it's hard to feel bad for them when they got such a sweet deal in so many ways.

One Big Trip - a documentary about six knucklehead rich kids in an rv around the turn of the millennium. they go around searching for truth, wisdom and america all the while tripping out on an assortment of the usual 90s drugs and just being kids in general. at times the film succeeds in creating (not capturing) a mood, but that's only sometimes. there's one semi-poignant moment during which one of the kids confronts a heroin addict who stiffed him out of a $25 on a street drug deal. the addict (in this case it's the dealer, not the kid with the camera who is trying to buy weed) tells the guy that he's addicted to heroin and that's why he has to steal money from people. it strikes a chord, but (as one of the females later points out) is ultimately flawed because of the means by which he got the material.  at any rate, the movie is only special if these kids are your friends, in which case it deserves kudos, but as a feature film or anything other than a home video it's only mediocre at best. C.

Ran - one more kurosawa film in the bag. a good retelling of "king lear." really uses color well...the three colors to represent the three sons, the blood red really pops out, etc. a pretty good soundtrack, though not as good as yojimbo. the acting was very good and shakespearean. i don't know why kurosawa chose to use wide shots so often...perhaps to accentuate the times when we do get to see a close up of a character's face. maybe the close up is abused so much that his not abusing it becomes different rather than appropriate. at any rate the story was well done (from what i understand it wasn't an exact copy of king lear), the acting was very good, the score was nice, and the colors were used well. in sum, good film making all around from someone who rarely gives the contrary. B+.

Dreamcatcher- the first two thirds of the film were well paced. kasden took plenty of time to set up some mystery and allow the characters to be fully introduced to the audience. despite the fact that a lot of the elements are borrowed from previous stephen king work (namely creepshow, the shining and stand by me). i was pretty into the movie for most of the way through. the last third, though, seemed to fall apart into some sort of lazy hollywood heap. i don't know exactly how it all went wrong. perhaps it was following the worst actor of the main group of four buddies or maybe it was the independence day twist in the story or maybe it was donnie wahlberg that did it. i'm not sure. having the inside of a character's thoughts and memories as a literal physical place was a pretty good device, but was taken too far and as a result just seemed like lazy writing. C.
Paths Of Glory - one of the finest war films of all-time. well paced and tightly constructed (under 90 minutes) without suffering much in terms of character development. has some comic moments which are also quite sad. it's mostly a heavy sarcasm that only the good guys get and that's what makes it both so funny and so sad. i'm sure jim thompson had a lot to do with this script turning out as great as it is. this film ended up being a sort of launching point to dr. strangelove for kubrick and it shows. the sarcasm and obvious irony and ridiculous nature of the events in paths of glory are just a prelude to the all out humor that makes for the cornerstone of strangelove. at any rate, douglas is superb, the score is good, the script is great and the camera work is also very good. there were a couple weak performances, but any weaknesses in the film were wiped away by the most human, realistic and uplifting endings of any kubrick work. not the sappy ending of "killer's kiss," not the noirish ending of "the killing" and not the pessimistic (albeit funny and, i think, realistic) ending of" full metal jacket." this ending acknowledges that times aren't likely to change, but also recognizes the potential for beauty in the world - even within the least beautiful times our kind has seen - world war I. A.

Great Dictator - this was chaplin's first talkie. he does a pretty good job making the transition and uses the new sense of sound rather than just letting it be there for the sake of having it. he's got some good wordplay and makes fun of the german language.certainly it shows a certain mastery of the technique and art that is cinema, but the story is somehow lacking. i can't put my finger on it...maybe it doesn't do a good job of teetering between drama and comedy. though there are both funny and poignant moments it doesn't go back and forth between them with the same grace that something like "the graduate" does. the final speech scene is quite good and i think pretty revealing of chaplin, but the movie as a whole was more long winded and not as funny as "modern times" (in my opinion his best film) so i give it a B. p.s. politically ahead of its time.

Dead Alive - i finally got around to watching this oft-recommended movie. if you have a light stomach or are squeamish then i wouldn't suggest you read this review, much less watch this movie. okay...there are two kinds of horror movies: the serious ones that build atmosphere and use psychology, music, camera angles, and everything else to get into your head and make you uneasy; like the shining, the ring or dawn of the dead. then there are those like evil dead (a big influence on this film) and reanimator which go completely over the top with gore and play with the horror film conventions in order to (hopefully) make you laugh. dead alive falls into the latter category. there are times in the first 30 minutes where you might be scared or your skin will crawl, but for the most part this is about laughs, pushing boundaries and doing so intelligently. the important part of that point is the last one - intelligence. this movie, like evil dead, has a strong cinematic undercurrent; that is, throughout the film you are aware that the director know what he's doing - this isn't an amateur who is just making a gore flick for fun. the screenplay, as well as the cinematography and direction, all confirm this fact. the last 10 minutes or so really shine. in fact in the last 30 minutes of the film the most tame thing we experience is a head in a blender. one of the more funny moments is after a zombie's intestines fall on the floor they begin to creep along the ground after the protagonist only to take a break and fart mid-chase. priceless film making. anyone thinking at this point that i'm insane or that this film isn't all its cracked up to be is sorely mistaken. the genius of this film is well-established and certainly contributed to peter jackson being chosen to direct the lord of the rings trilogy. it's a great movie with a well-established 20 minutes of normalcy at the beginning to offer a great contrast to the last 30 minutes of putrescence that cap off the film. oh and the symbolism and surprise ending further confirm my feelings for this fine piece of work. one last note...it definitely was inspired by evil dead - the gore, the feel and the protagonist busting down the door at the end were all totally out of evil dead, but it's important to add that it wasn't too derivative - rather it was its own movie with occasional nods to its mentor. A-.

Graduate- likely in my top ten films of all-time. if you're under 25 make sure you watch this one before you get too old. that's not to say it doesn't speak to the older generation, but i think there's even more to gain from the experience when you're younger. some of the most lively and original cinematography you'll ever see; a couple of the greatest performances of film history; an ending that lays shame to all others before it; and a soundtrack that ranks among the very best of all-time. this film defines the line between drama and comedy at any given moment it can tip over into comedy and have you laughing and before you know it can tip back the other way making you want to cry. this is what great cinema is about, this is why art fulfills my spiritual needs. A+.

What Time Is It There? - what the fuck? is this supposed to have surrealist elements? is this supposed to be funny (as one critic wrote - "sets loose shock waves of comedy!" -elvis mitchell of the new york times) or is it supposed to be deep and heart breaking? okay so let me tell you a bit about this movie. it's a taiwianese film about a watch vendor who loses his father at the beginning of the movie. one day while trying to sell watches a nice looking woman asks to buy the watch he is wearing. he tells her that it's not for sale and that it would be bad luck because his father just died. she doesn't care and eventually gets him to sell the watch. she says goodbye and off to paris she goes. after she leaves he starts setting all the clocks in taiwan to paris time. meanwhile his mother is going insane because she thinks his father is now a ghost who visits them in their apartment from time to time. in the last half of the film the woman and the protagonist seem to have similar experiences...is there a ungodly connection between them or is it just coincidence or maybe just an artistic tool? in the final couple scenes the watch vendor has his suitcase of watches stolen from him. the next shot shows the woman in paris sitting by a fountain and a suitcase floats into frame and then off to the edge of the fountain. after that some random old guy takes the suitcase out of the fountain places it by the fountain ledge and walks away. now you know what i mean when i ask: "what the fuck?" now i'll admit that on one level this story does make sense. you've got the mother trying to reach the father. the son trying to reach the woman and the woman trying to reach him. but why all distractions from those seemingly most important relationships? so we've decided that the story is 1) thin at best 2) probably not the strong part of the film. so what is then? well the acting was pretty good, i suppose. but the strongest aspect of the film was definitely it's cinematogrpahy. a lot of the shots in the film were very very artistic; they were like paintings. the framing was not only good, but an integral part of the film. there are very few cuts in the movie and the director generally kept the camera still...sometimes painfully so. add to that the extended lapses of conversation and you have for a very very slowly paced movie. most unfortunately this was done to no avail because i failed to connect with any of the characters. this movie just didn't have the right parts fitting together...the film's concept could have worked, but not with this direction style. the direction style was inspired and strong, but not for this story. the film turns out to be like building a house out of lincoln logs and legos - they just don't fit and as a result the film falls apart half way through. C-.

Revolution OS - tells the story behind linux, gnu and the open source/free software movement. it's pretty geeky stuff for sure, but i think most people who know a thing or two about computers could follow it enough to be interesting. besides, the movie, though largely dedicated to talking about computers and their operating systems, is at its core a political and philosophical story of a war fought within the realm of computer technology. it's about the idea that intellectual property (computer programs and their code) should not be property, but should be shared openly with the user so they can adapt it as they like. the first 45 minutes is really the best material, but the whole 80 something minutes is worthwhile. interesting stuff which will one day be (and probably already is) a very important part of our history. well-edited. B.

Fistful of Dollars - based on yojimbo, though not as good. the two warring factions of the town weren't equally dispicable (like they were in yojimbo) and as a result clint eastwood was a sort of savior of the innocents, rather than a wise warrior teaching two warring families a lesson. kurosawa seems to oversimplify the stupidity of people and even though it may not be realistic, i like it. this movie didn't do that to the same extent. not even eastwood can better mifune's performance from the yojimbo, but he does a fine job. it's hard for me to watch westerns based upon kurosawa movies because i always get caught up with the differences between the two... this one didn't do as good a job as yojimbo in portraying the wanderer as equally intelligent as he is physically strong. the bartender in fistful of dollars wasn't nearly as good as the owner of the sake shop in yojimbo. the bad guy in fistful of dollars wasn't as well-rounded as the one in yojimbo. the town in fistful of dollars wasn't as foreboding as the one in yojimbo, but leone did do a good job with it. the first glimpse of the town we get in yojimbo is of a dog carrying a human hand down the middle of a dusty road...in fistful of dollars it's a small boy being chased away by a couple of thugs shooting at his feet as he runs away. that's fine film making. it's hard trying to followup a film like yojimbo, but fistful of dollars does a good job and actually has a very good ending and better score than the original. B+.

Devil's Playground - documentary about the period after amish teenagers turn sixteen and go through a sort of rite of passage...they are allowed to experience the ways of the outside world until they decide to either embrace or shun the amish ways. very interesting peek into a mosly unknown world. not entirely well done technically, but the substance is what matters most in documentaries and this one proves that. rites of passage are one of the more universal aspects across cultures and that makes this journey all the more easy to relate to. it's interesting, though, because the "choice" that the kids are given can hardly be considered such... the amish are interesting - they are willfully ignorant (they reject education past the age of 13 for fear of developing too much pride) and yet seem proud of it. an entirely different culture that should neither be lauded nor criticized. features music from aphex twin and you can't go wrong with him. B.

25th Hour - i was really put off by the ending at first, but after talking and thinking about it i like it a lot.  i saw ed norton's character as a foil for the united states (thus the 9/11 imagery isn't out of place, but rather complementary). our fate, like ed norton's, is uncertain. all his friends who enable his bad habits are like all the citizens who are complacent and enable the country to go on the way it does. ed norton's character has all the potential in the world and wastes it thanks to greed. at one point in the movie ed norton goes off on a bigoted rant reminiscent of "do the right thing" wherein he blames all his problems and the problems of nyc on immigrants, blacks, and just about everyone around him. at the end he realizes that none of what he's said is really true...he only has himself to blame. spike lee is a great filmmaker. very good performances by all. B+.
Life is Beautiful- this isn't a movie that makes light of the holocaust. this isn't a movie that makes fun of the holocaust. this isn't a movie that tries to pretend the holocaust wasn't as horrible as it really was. this is a movie that shows that human spirit can be strong in spite of awful circumstances. this is a movie that shows a father trying desperately to protect his son from the savagely arbitrary and violent world that is reality. for me, this was better than schindler's list because it didn't have such a heavy handed approach. it started light and drew me in closer to the characters. it made life seem beautiful even under the most dire of circumstances. to anyone that thinks this made light of the holocaust i suggest you watch sullivan's travels and take the main conclusion of that film and apply it to the viewing of this one. "shakespeare in love" was a better film than this? fuck no. B+.

Se7en - this is a better film than fight club. sure the performances are superb, the screenplay is phenomenal, and the characters are both empathetic and symbolic. but beyond even that the direction is really first class. just look for the way fincher uses all the senses throughout the film. he encorporates all five senses on an almost subconscious level to make the audience feel even closer to the experience of the characters. for example the sense of smell....when brad pitt lays down to take an nap while waiting for the computer to come up with a fingerprint match he lays his head down next to an ashtray and then, being opposed to the smell, moves the ashtray away. this attention to detail is the rule, rather than the expception, throughout the film. A+.
Monster's Ball - when the highlight of a film is seeing someone's tits you know you've wasted your time. halle berry was good, but not fantastic. jodie foster was better in panic room and she didn't even get nominated for an academy award. the movie really just failed to make a connection with me. i felt bad for one character and he died half way through the movie. everyone else was either dispicable or uninteresting. i'm not insensitive - this movie just didn't have any life to it. it's too bad too, because the director obviously has a fair amount of talent. D+.

A Christmas Story - the consummate christmas movie. the camera work is deceptively good, the style is lively, independent and fits perfectly with the feel/tone of the film, and the narrative command is perfect. from beginning to end this movie breathes like few films, especially of this kind, do. every performance is flawless and it appeals to people of all ages. the end both confirms the reality of the world (one that grownups know all too well) and fits with one that kids, too, can appreciate - the broken toy on christmas day feeling. a fantastic film deserving of no less than an A+. this one has withstood the test of time.

Magnificent Seven- not nearly the film that it was based upon (seven samurai)...doesn't have the artistic genius, the characters aren't nearly as vibrant or likable (mifune's counterpart in this version is laughable), and just isn't as good a movie. maybe it's a mistake to compare it to what many people call the best film of all-time, but they made that decision by remaking - not me. yul brynner and steve mcqueen give pretty good performances, but other than that the movie doesn't have nearly the gusto of it's predecessor. it's surprising that the ensemble doesn't seem to have much character considering who sturges had to work with and the fact that he did a great job later with the great escape. C.
Seven Samurai - well i've finally seen the movie that is often referred to as the best of all-time. undoubtedly a fine example of cinematic mastery, but that doesn't mean much without injecting some humanity into the picture. having watched this only one time i don't think i'll be able to say anything that hasn't already been said about this film so i'll just tell you what i thought...mifune's performance was spectacular. i know i'm a late bloomer, but kurosawa and mifune are rapidly climbing the ranks in my book. he really is a master actor. seeing the magnificent seven right after i saw this gave me a good dose of perspective...sure seven samurai is an hour and a half longer than the magnificent seven, but so much more is done in that time. though, kurosawa doesn't really need very much time to characterize a person or place (think the opening scene of yojimbo with the dog walking through the town holding a human hand in its jaw...one picture worth literally a thousand words) because he's that good. at any rate the 3.5 hours was far more gratifying and fulfilling than the 2 hours that the magnificent seven offered. the samurai are so much harder, likable, and heroic than the gunmen in the magnificent seven. i couldn't help but think that these guys were the ultimate badasses throughout the film...at the same time they were more human than we typically expect our heroes to be. i'll need to see this movie again in the near future. A-.

Sanjuro - the best sequel ever? yojimbo is a great film, but, and i'm going out on a limb here, i think that sanjuro is better. even though it was my first time watching this movie i feel i gleaned more from it, on all sorts of levels, than i did watching yojimbo two or three times. both films have the ability to function as both "high and low" art at the same time. "high and low" in quotes because that's another kurosawa film i plan on seeing...i'm so clever. seriously though this film really does succeed in both entertaining its viewers and challenging how we think about the traditional roles of a hero. the conclusion in this film is more substantial than that of yojimbo. this marks only the third kurosawa film i've seen (rashomon, sanjuro, and yojimbo), but it's pretty evident already that this guy has earned the respect he has gotten over the years. i love both the fact and way that he deals with the psychology of all the characters...it's infinitely interesting and easy to see why he is studied so much. very recommendable film. A.

Naqoyqatsi - this is what one imdb.com visitor wrote: "This is one great film. I waited more than 3 years to see this film. The special effects were beyond explanation. They are very impressive and well done. I like the use of when a b/w negative image is shown and shifted into different colors. There was a great scene with a zoom of a mandlebrot fractal. A good example of an original special effect was the morphing of different paintings. A famous painting morphs into another famous painting, and that into another famous painting, etc. We also see wax dummies of famous people, George W Bush, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. Abraham Lincoln, Sitting Bull, and others. I hope to see more films like this be made."
beyond the pretty colors and neat people on the big tv this film tries to show us life as war. as was the case with the first time i saw koyaanisqatsi i was initially disappointed by the film. my major gripe was that too much of the film was fabricated, rather than captured like the previous films did. it was less of a documentary and more of a manufactured statement. perhaps one could say that this manufacturing of images, rather than capturing them, fits in with the theme of the film, but to me it detracted from the film more than it added to it. initially i also felt that the images were sometimes frivolous, excessive, needless and just not in line with the idea of life as war or civilized violence. though this may hold merit, i don't think that that matters so much. though ever image is chosen by its creators, not every image has to fit precisely into the theme...it's often more about a feel, than it is about each image representing a number and the sum of those images creating a given end number. my advice is to not overthink things the first time you watch it and watch it at least twice.
the music wasn't as inspired as koyaanisqatsi, but was better than powaqqatsi. the cresendos weren't as powerful and there weren't as many which made the ending all the more important - and thus, for me, less fulfilling. koyaanisqatsi had a much better sense of pacing.
in sum, the baby was cute and the waves were cool. B.

Femme Fatale - watch a good dose of film noir before watching this one. pays homage to double indemnity in the first shot and uses that as a launching pad to modernize film noir, only to completely turn its major tenets on their collective head. it follows the woman, rather than the man, it defies the notion of a hopeless and dark world and it does a great job of telling the story without dialogue. i liked this movie a lot because of what role it might play in the future of film. it defied a lot of the conventions of film noir, while embracing them throughout the majority of it. depalma adds another very good film to his resume. B+.

The Wind Will Carry Us - very nicely photographed film that functions as a two hour symbolic story of how kiarostami thinks we live our life. the protagonist comes into the villiage on a winding road not knowing exactly where he is or where he is going. when he gets there he essentially waits for death (though not his own) and spends his time idle and seemingly floating along like a leaf in the wind. it's a tough movie to get through but the photography and acting help; and when all is said and done it's a worthwhile film. gets better as you think about it afterwards. to me a sort of "before the law" on film. B.

Koyaanisqatsi - not as technically ingenious as "man with a movie camera," but probably benefits from that. this hits you on a more visceral level. as an aside, reggio said that "los olvidados" was a major spiritual landmark in his life. this film does a fantastic job of fusing music with imagery. i don't know what else to say. i think everyone will experience the film differently and that's part of the point - the movie is a journey in a way unlike most films so you kinda have to make your own decisions on how it has affected you. for me it brings life into greater focus, the minutae of life mean less because the film so thoroughly gets across the big picture. it reaffirms my belief that humanity is a plague, but in the close ups of people on the street it makes me feel apart of humanity in a way that daily life doesn't and can't. the final episode of the trilogy "naqoyqatsi" is produced by stephen soderbergh and features some music work by yo-yo ma. i broke down and watched the trailer and it looks like it could be great. can't wait to see it. A.

The Graduate - litterally fantastic in the best possible way. this story transcends reality and works on an allegorical level that few stories can. basically a perfect movie. at the very end when ben is storming into the church and there are those few loud strums on the acoustic guitar they should have had the who's "baba o'reilly"...that really was what they were looking for, unfortunately the movie was made in 1967 and the song was made in 1971. watch that scene and you'll know what i'm talking about. the cinematography was especially good, the acting was great, the screenplay was awesome. A+.

K-19: The Widowmaker - "chernobyl under the sea" as melanie put it. indeed it does have flashes of disney triteness. the problem with all submarine films is that they all must be compared to "das boot" which is undoubtedly the greatest submarine film of all-time. in no way does k-19 compare; there are moments when it attempts to emulate das boot - the beginning when they are loading supplies onto the sub is one such moment. in short this film fails both as a submarine film and as a film. it too often states the obvious rather than allowing the audience to make its own conclusions ("you made yourself a hero" harrison ford proclaims after one of the many lifeless side characters puts his life on the line for the crew). kathryn bigelow (the director) and keanu reeves should heed the same advice - sometimes less is more. oh well. with this cast you'd think the acting would be a lot better, i think bigelow is just a bad director. C-.
"[About her 1995 film, "Strange Days"] "If you hold a mirror up to society, and you don't like what you see, you can't fault the mirror. It's a mirror. I think that on the eve of the millennium, a point in time only four years from now, the clock is ticking, the same social issues and racial tensions still exist, the environment still needs reexamination so you don't forget it when the lights come up. "Strange Days" is provocative. Without revealing too much, I would say that it feels like we are driving toward a highly chaotic, explosive, volatile, Armageddon-like ending. Obviously, the riot footage came out of the LA riots. I mean, I was there. I experienced that. I was part of the cleanup afterwards, so I was very aware of the environment. I mean, it really affected me. It was etched indelibly on my psyche. So obviously some of the imagery came from that. I don't like violence. I am very interested, however, in truth. And violence is a fact of our lives, a part of the social context in which we live. But other elements of the movie are love and hope and redemption. Our main character throws up after seeing this hideous experience. The toughest decision was not wanting to shy away from anything, trying to keep the truth of the moment, of the social environment. It's not that I condone violence. I don't. It's an indictment. I would say the film is cautionary, a wake-up call, and that I think is always valuable.""
thank goodness we have her to provide THE mirror to society. how brazen of her to think that she can perfectly portray reality in an objective way. it's funny that in the same quote she unknowingly acknowledges how tainted her point of view really is - "Obviously, the riot footage came out of the LA riots. I mean, I was there. I experienced that. I was part of the cleanup afterwards, so I was very aware of the environment. I mean, it really affected me. It was etched indelibly on my psyche." i may have found the first director whose movies i will try to completely avoid in the future.

Requiem For A Dream - some movies are much more about the journey than the destination, this is one of them. granted all movies are both a journey and a destination, but some films really take you away into a different place and this one does it splendidly. it wasn't the most amazing film of all time and aronofsky recycled a lot of techniques he used in pi, but it still stands on its own and is worth the emotional investment. the dvd has a good interview with the writer which you should check out if you get the chance. B+. p.s. naturallly the soundtrack rocks deez nuts (clint mansell and the kronos quartet...wow)

Waking Life - it's a deeply philosophical movie without (in my opinion) seeming pretentious or strained. has no real plot of which to speak, but still kept me interested until the end. perhaps the lack of a plot and the feel that it was more a series of vignettes was what kept me entertained; or maybe it's just that it was able to keep me thinking on all sorts of different levels. all this without mention of the first noticeable difference...the animation much in the same style as the beastie boys video for "shadrach," which was of course directed by the great nathaniel hornblower. very well done and very ambitious, kudos to linklater and his animation staff. got me to both think and act - a latter is a hard thing for anything to get me to do. not for those who prefer to live without questions. i'm going to buy this movie. A-. as a side note, this is the first movie i've seen on my computer.

His Girl Friday - not a particularly hilarious movie, but definitely has some moments. very much in the tradition of a "bringing up baby" or many of the other comedies i've seen around this time period. if you don't like films from this time period this one won't change your mind, but if you do then you'll notice this is one of the better films of its kind. i liked the politician based humor the most...it was also the most timeless portion of the movie. the entire movie has only 4 or 5 different sets which led me to believe it was written for the stage, this was later confirmed by the apt commentary (thanks to the dvd format) from a film expert named mccarthy.  C+.

Se7en - just an amazing film all around. three of the great actors of my generation coming together in the final half hour or so of the film in one of the most memorable endings in film history. fincher does an amazing job creating the dark and dreary atmosphere...not until the final portion of the film do we see any sunlight and that's, ironically, the darkest part of the film. everything sets up perfectly for the final line: "hemingway once wrote that the world is a fine place and worth fighting for. i agree with the second part." the characters that freeman and pitt create are so intensely real that, even after repeated viewings, i can't help but experience the film with the characters...which of course makes the ending all the more powerful. despite the darkness of the city, the crimes being investigated, and the issues addressed throughout, the film keeps things balanced with the occasional (and effective) use of comic relief. loved it from the first viewing to my latest...A+.

Barry Lyndon - throughout the film it seemed as though there wasn't a goal or purpose to the story...usually this would be the kind of thing that would bother me, but considering the protagonist's propensity to simply float through life accepting whatever fate hands him i think it fit very well. in terms of acting, set production, and cinematography the film did a fantastic job. also did a good job of dealing with the time period, having watched it i feel as though i know the time period better than before. i really enjoyed the narration...it both moved along the story well and provided some comic relief. despite all this i felt it lacked the bite and grab that kubrick films usually have - i occasionally found myself really getting into the movie, but not enough given the 3 hour length. i should see this again. B.

Panic Room - didn't think that fincher could pull it off, but he did. engaging throughout its entirety. good comic relief. just well done all around. movies like this show me that there is an appreciable difference between good and bad movie making. though this film may not be as philosophical as a fight club or as dark and intense as se7en, it still pleases throughout. i compare this movie to soderbergh's "ocean's eleven." both by talented directors, both less serious (in terms of film as a medium for social commentary) than their previous efforts, but both thoroughly enjoyable and worth one's time. B+.

35 up - good idea for a documentary...every seven years they film a group of english people and see what they've been up to since the last installment. this is the fifth such installment and it speaks to all sorts of things...the differences of class, differences between the british and americans, the human spirit, etc. i liked the idea more than the execution. i didn't really get emotionally involved with the characters, perhaps had they chosen fewer people to study it would have been more effective in that respect. not fantastic, but intriguing and intimate enough for me to want to see 42 up. B.

American Beauty - has some really powerful moments which make the movie great instead of just really good. like great escape and paths of glory it has a depressing ending when taken as a whole, but also has the slighest spike of hope at the very end to provide some balance. in great escape after "the 50" are executed steve mcqueen returns to the pow camp and throws his baseball against the cooler wall providing some good vibes amongst the mostly negative ending. in paths of glory the 3 soldiers are executed and things at the administrative level remain the same despite douglas' best efforts to the otherwise. but at the very end the german singer (played by kubrick's wife) calms a crowd of soldiers and signifies the hope and innocence outside of war. in american beauty spacey's character is killed, but he says in his narration he makes death (and life) seem so precious. movies like that are really great...they take you on this voyage of ups and downs and in the case of the previous three (and others) they have that rare ability to string you along the whole way. with a minute left in paths of glory i was thinking to myself "this world sucks, there's no justice, i hate life." but in the last minute kubrick was able to restore my hope for humanity and the world. though american beauty doesn't succeed at the same level that paths of glory does, it still shines. A.

Vanilla Sky - a remake of some movie i've never heard of, but that aside it still felt like it ripped off total recall and discreet charm of the bourgeoisie; all the while it had an a.i. feel to it (especially the sad excuse for an ending). if i were to discount all that i'd still find that it completely lacked anything approaching entertainment or intellectual stimulus. it had some comic relief (jason leigh saved it from complete lameness), it was uninteresting and seemed to be a mindfuck just for the sake of being one. it was like a horror movie that used the same cat-jumping-out-from-around-the-corner gag over and over and over again. it got old, it got tedious, it wasn't well done, it got sappy, it dragged its feet, it was just poor. down. p.s. cameron crowe sucks my scrotum.

2001: A Space Odyssey - great movie. lots to say about it. i've only seen it twice in its entirety...i think it's open for interpretation in so many ways purposely. i don't think that arthur c. clarke or kubrick are really trying to make one claim about outer space or spirituality, rather they are trying to tickle your imagination and get you thinking. in fact arthur c. clarke said that in the four years he worked with kubrick on this film they worked very well together and that their main goal was to make people realize a few things about the vastness and potential of space. this film has some of the best cinematography and use of sets and music that you'll ever see. also has some of the most horrifying moments i can remember in film. kubrick is great at creating that - think "the shining," and in a different way "dr. strangelove" and "a clockwork orange" or even the end of "the killing." kubrick is underrated when it comes to creating horrific atmosphere or horrific situations. up. watch it twice and then make a judgement.

El Mariachi - could have made 1000 (literally) of these for the same cost as making titantic, what a shame. a very good film with a distinctive style. good acting from non-actors. very worthwhile. up. it's funny because i just looked at the imdb review of the film and the guy made the same point that i did - namely that this film was made extremely cheaply, yet kicks hardcore ass compared to something like titantic. note: at first i had the figure above at a modest 1000, but after going to the imdb site i saw that the fellow who had reviewed it had more detailed information on the film's funding...it turns out that one actually "could have shot approximately 28571 (!) Mariachi-kind-of films for that amount of cash." that's even more insane than i had remembered. i always remember films like this and night of the living dead being made for dirt cheap (both employed townspeople and friends as actors), but i didn't know that el mariachi was made for only $7,000.

Rope - if you haven't read nietzsche then you are seriously robbing yourself of the potential this movie has. that's not to say that this film can't be appreciated without nietzsche, but with nietzsche you'll understand and have a framework for the philosophy behind this. of course when one of the characters mentions nietzsche he misunderstands him in the worst way possible, just as hitler did, but such is the nature of philosophy... a great film which is sadly known only for the fact that it's a four reel film and only cuts four times (although it really cuts more like 8 times). great story, acting, and directing. hitchcock's second most entertaining and third best film. up.

The Apartment - let me first say that looking at shirley maclaine fourty years ago you would never have known she would end up the ugly pseudo-red head that she is now. that aside....this is a great film. billy wilder (double indemnity, sunset blvd...) wrote and directed this great piece of work. as a story it's great, but as a film it's even better. at times it was really really ahead of its time - in terms of social commentary - the things which aren't talked about in the open, as it were. but i guess that's not a problem for ole billy wilder - i hear that the seven year itch had some trouble along the lines of sexual innuendo and politics...at any rate, this was a good film, especially for the hopeless romantics out there. up.

Almost Famous - i bet cameron crowe just gooed himself after he wrote the screenplay for this piece. within the first five minutes three vws make a cameo - bus, bug, and the ghia. this was the hightlight of the film. the two best characters were seen the least - the mother and the daughter. the mother (franced mcdormand) was great and real and believable, unlike most of the other characters. kate hudson was good for the part, but the part was retarded. what seemed to be the apex of the comedy in this film was when three groupies tried to rape the 15 year old lead character. ha ha ha. some performances stood out - philip seymore hoffman was, as always, very good. jimmy fallon was good. the movie, overall, just seemed very contrived. i could picture the studio execs the whole time in the boardroom laughing their heads off about how they were cashing in on jerry maguire's success. best thing about the movie - the soundtrack. played four led zeppelin songs - rain song, misty mountain hop, that's the way, and tangerine. down.

Meet The Parents - formulaic, BUT very very funny. didn't do anything too different in terms of plot - sympathetic (to the audience) character tries to win over the in-laws and can't seem to do anything right. the thing is that this movie was well directed, acted, and had lots of good gags. i laughed plenty. formula movies aren't always bad, that's the moral of the story. up.

I Am A Fugitive On A Chain Gang - paul muni (30s) version. thought i had seen it, turns out i saw the, inferior, later version. this movie rocked from beginning to end. it rocked for different reasons at different times. sometimes it was witty and funny. other times it was kinda heavy or sad. other times it was exciting and nerve racking. very good. paul muni, though not good as scarface (in my humble opinion) esp. compared with pacino, was very good in this flick. up.

....nothing else, i was a shitty writer back then.

About my reviews: All reviews are given a grade ranging from F- (gigli) to A+ (the graduate). For the most part films are graded on a semi-relative scale, that is relative to other pictures of a similar type or genre. Thus a mindless comedy that generates a decent number of laughs might receive the same "B" grading as a technically superior and equally entertaining film-noir because the comedy is held to a lower standard. In general, films like this will more easily get passable grades, but getting an A -/+ is equally difficult across all genres. Also, i generally will refrain from A -/+ grades for any picture i haven't seen more than once. Occasionally this rule is broken, but it is a rare occurrence. pictures of historical/technical importance or significance will naturally receive greater consideration, but i don't give a pass to a film simply for its technical achievements because i feel to do so would invalidate film as being, first and foremost, an art form. Also, a good part of my grade has to do with the timeless nature of a film. "Terminator 2" isn't a great film because its special effects were so revolutionary at the time, rather it's a great film because the story is timeless and it's a well-executed work; i apply this standard to early films as well. Naturally all of the reviews are merely my opinion and that changes as i see more films and my tastes evolve.
Finally, i am not a professional reviewer and most of the reviews are meant more as a brief summary of my thoughts, rather than a cohesive assessment of the worth of a film. You will find that some reviews are rather unprofound, while others are extensive and (occasionally) insightful. This is completely dependent upon my mood, the work, and the level of my intelligence at the time. Occasionally there will be spoilers, sorry. jump top