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Bronenosets Potemkin (1925)
Fantastic to look at, but...
Over the past couple of years, I've made it my mission to watch many of the most famous films ever made. And while I've greatly enjoyed some of these films, others have struck me as overrated drags.
"Battleship Potemkin" falls somewhere in the middle of the scale. I admire the film for its groundbreaking direction and sequences of extreme suspense and horror. But, on the other hand, much of the film is a little ... dull. Indeed, my girlfriend is now snoozing heavily in the next room, having passed out during the long sequence of the Potemkin approaching the rest of the fleet. (I suspect that I liked the film a little more than she did. Bless.)
Now, I should unpack what I mean by "dull," because I hate it when people are imprecise with their criticisms. I quite like a lot of films that can be construed as "dull" -- Twilight Samurai, Alphaville, Tokyo Story, and so on. But these films aren't boring to me; they're paced in such a way as to invite contemplation rather than generate excitement. And because I care about the characters in these films, this pacing doesn't bother me at all; indeed, it draws me into the story even more deeply.
The trouble with "Battleship Potemkin" is that it doesn't have great characters; nor does it really invite you to contemplate anything. At heart, it's an action movie designed to appeal to the most basic of emotions, not your brain. So, in the slow stretches of the film between action segments, "Potemkin" sort of grinds down. This problem doesn't spoil the film completely, but it does in my opinion prevent it from being an all-time classic.
So why did I give it an "8"? Because it truly is fascinating to watch. Because the Odessa steps sequence is rightly celebrated (and the imitations aren't as good). Because the propaganda bits are actually sort of interesting. And, of course, it's full of memorable images that are both beautiful and terrifying.
And yet, I can't help being a little annoyed at film critics for over-praising films that were groundbreaking for purely technical reasons. Even though film is a largely visual medium, shouldn't we be more invested in plot, characters, and themes than in novel use of cuts/dissolves/montage/etc.? There's more to movies than clever trickery with the camera -- or there should be, anyway.
In short, "Battleship Potemkin" looks great and is a fascinating piece of film history, but it might not entertain you, and it almost certainly won't enlighten you. I liked it fine, but I can think of quite a few movies I'd rather watch -- many of them foreign, and most of them slow-paced.
All the Real Girls (2003)
All the Real Bores
Nothing grates quite so much as a "realistic" film that contains practically no realism at all.
To its credit, "All the Real Girls" really *tries* to be true-to-life. But the dialog and performances don't convince. Characters in this film are constantly doing and saying quirky, bizarre things that real people never do or say.
For example, in one of many strange "romantic" scenes, the female lead says to her boyfriend: "I had a dream last night that you were growing a garden on a trampoline. And I was so happy that I invented peanut butter." So, what are we to make of this bizarre nugget of dialog? Is it "sentimental"? Is it "deep"? And is it the kind of thing that I would say on a date? (I'll answer the last question for you -- "no.") It's none of those things, it's just ridiculous ... the product of a strange, artificial mode of speech peculiar to American art-house movies.
In another weird moment, our romantic leads are standing in an inexplicably deserted bowling alley (did they break in after hours?) The guy says to his girlfriend something like, "I wanna dance, but I don't want you to watch me. Turn around." So she turns around. And then he dances like a doofus. Do even goofy teenagers behave like this on dates? And am I really supposed to believe that this awkward-as-anything guy is a ladies' man, as we are repeatedly told (but not actually shown)?
Other exciting scenes involve a lengthy discussion of what's better to eat for breakfast, pancakes or eggs; a woman in a clown costume declaring something like "I used to be beautiful, but now I am this clown"; and a scuffle in which an unimportant character gets beaten severely and choked, and is then totally forgotten about by all the other characters, the director, and the screenwriter. One of many strange lapses in a film of lapses.
So, if your idea of a good time is to spend almost two hours in indie movie hell, watching a non-plot crawl along at the pace of a half-dead snail, while two superficial and thinly drawn characters alternate between flirting ridiculously and exchanging depressing anecdotes on their path to falling in a desperately superficial form of love ... well then, this may be the motion picture for you. I, for one, will be watching something like "Smiles of a Summer Night" or "Terror of Mechagodzilla" instead.
Petey Wheatstraw (1977)
I admit it ... I was wrong about Petey Wheatstraw
Years ago, I wrote a hostile review of Petey Wheatstraw for IMDb. What can I possibly say to justify that? I was young, and foolish. And the greatness of this film had not yet revealed itself to me.
Well, "greatness" is too strong a word. Petey Wheatstraw is not great, but rather "amusing" and somewhat "crazy." If you permit yourself to be drawn into the film's wacky universe, you may have a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience.
Petey Wheatstraw, in short, is about a kung-fu fighting stand-up comedian who makes an unwise bargain with Lucifer. It's part comedy movie, part horror movie, part gangster movie, part sex movie, and part kung-fu epic with intentionally (I hope) bad choreography. The film bounces breathlessly between these genres, especially in the early scenes, which are disorienting and seem totally unconnected. But soon enough, the story settles into a kind of weird rhythm.
Needless to say, the production values are poor (Lucifer's demon minions are men in ballet tights and Halloween masks), the editing is choppy, and the acting is of highly variable quality. The script, however, has a weird poetry to it. The comedy dialog, though extremely crass, is sometimes really funny, and some of the "character" scenes when Petey and Lucifer get together are bizarrely effective.
Now I feel all weird, because I'm trying to defend what is, in essence, an extremely tacky bad movie. But it's a *witty* bad movie, and I can appreciate the effort that went into its production. And the film undeniably captures a time -- a place -- a bizarreness. It's sort of hypnotic.
Let me put it this way: I bought Petey Wheatstraw as a bargain DVD years ago, hated it on the initial viewing, and almost pawned it. But I never did get rid of that DVD. It survived several years of DVD trading-in, numerous changes of address on my part, and other seismic events in my life that might easily have caused Petey Wheatstraw's demise. But that DVD survived through it all; I still have the movie, still think about it sometimes, still smirk when I see it on my shelf. And that's the best endorsement I can give it.
Proof that you can't go home again...
The Alien films are science fiction classics. Well, the first three are classics - the fourth one is some kind of bad dream.
The Predator films are...good fun. I like the first one especially.
Now then, the Aliens vs. Predator films are simply a disgrace. I understand that many sci-fi fans always wanted to see these legendary creatures fight on screen, but to be honest the idea has always held little appeal to me. It's just a sign, really, that both movie franchises are lacking in inspiration and, in fact, limping towards utter extinction. Like embarrassing, drunken party guests, the Aliens and the Predators don't know that it's time to *leave*, already, so our pleasant 1980s memories of them can remain untarnished.
So, about this movie in particular. The direction, by the brothers Strause (?), is awful. Scene follows upon scene with little or no logical connecting material between them. The cutting is abrupt. The lighting is dark and murky, to the point that almost nothing can be seen - not the Aliens, not the Predators, and not even Reiko Aylesworth looking foxy.
Worse yet, the fights - when they're even visible - are boring. What's so great about watching Predators ping Aliens from great distances?
Then there's the characters. You know, I used to think it would be interesting to see an Alien movie set on Earth, but I never paused to consider that such a setting would involve more boring humans cluttering up the joint, such as a beleaguered small-town sheriff (yawn), a reformed crook (ho-hum), and a hot high school girl who takes off some - but not all - of her clothes (yay, lingering sexism!) I couldn't get invested in any of them, so when they died - often in the gross and exploitative manner of teenagers in a slasher movie - I cared not.
One wonders if Shane Salerno cobbled together this script in a weekend. One wonders why the studio approved it. One wonders why there isn't a more serious effort being made to revive the Alien franchise. If somebody could bribe Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver to make another one of these movies, we could have another four-star classic on our hands. As it is, we have...this. One wonders, one wonders.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
The weakest link
Ugly. Slow. Tacky. Stupid. I have a truckload of negative adjectives that I feel like applying to Alien: Resurrection, and I think they all fit.
I know some people don't share my appreciation for Alien 3, but good grief, I think it's miles better than this installment. Indeed, Alien: Resurrection strikes me as one of those train-wreck movies that leaves the average viewer scratching her head, wondering why a studio would ever give the green light to such a misguided project.
Alien 3, unpopular though it was, brought the Alien saga to a very definite close by killing off the protagonist, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. In this film, Ripley is not-very-convincingly brought back to life as a clone. Indeed, this whole movie focuses on the cloning issue to the exclusion of all else; it's clearly trying to say something about genetic manipulation, or parenthood, or whatever, but the message (if any) is lost in a quagmire of grossness and bad writing.
Speaking of bad writing, the movie's scriptwriter was none other than Joss Whedon, he of "Buffy" fame. I gather that Whedon has sort of disowned Alien: Resurrection because he doesn't like the way his script was realized, but I'd argue that the script was fundamentally unsound to begin with. It's loaded with techno-babble, profanity and pilfered ideas, and populated by a cast of seedy, cardboard and thoroughly unlikable characters. Apart from Ripley, the only character who gets any development is Winona Ryder's cyborg-lady, but Ryder's acting stinks and her motivations aren't that interesting anyway.
Really, this film is the worst possible blend of elements from previous Alien movies. Unlike the first Alien and Alien 3, it lacks the presence of a single, unstoppable, awesome alien creature - and unlike Aliens, it lacks the excitement of a whole hoard of alien creatures. In Alien: Resurrection, there are 12 *somewhat stoppable* aliens - ho, hum. So we haven't got the sheer terror value of the first film here, or the raw energy of the second. We've got 12 aliens milling around yet another boring spaceship setting. What an ill-conceived idea.
There's only one really good scene in this film - the underwater action segment, which is more sophisticated than any of the battles in the other Alien films. But since I don't care about the characters, I don't care about who dies in that scene. And, apart from that one exciting bit, the film has few merits, choosing to get mired again and again in disgusting concepts and disgusting imagery of mutants, clones, and a half-Alien half-human creature with saggy boobs. Gross.
If the tagline for the second film was "this time, it's war," the tagline for this one should have been, "this time, bring a barf bag." Or, better yet, "this time...stay home." Atrocious stuff.
Beautiful. Romantic. Awesome.
"Samurai Rebellion" is a feminist action movie. I find that almost unbelievable, since feminism and macho sensibilities usually don't go hand-in-hand, but here they blend together perfectly. That's what makes this film such a rewarding and unique viewing experience.
I won't delve too much into the plot details, but suffice to say that the film concerns some rebellious samurai (as if you couldn't tell!) who are dedicated to protecting a wronged woman, the Lady Ichi. Thankfully, Lady Ichi is no cardboard character - she's as intelligent and passionate as she is beautiful, and her interactions with the samurai are fascinating. So, as the samurai fall in love with her and line up to protect her, the audience falls for her, too. I have to give a lot of credit to actress Yôko Tsukasa for making her character so sympathetic.
The samurai are a strong point, too. The younger one, Yogoro, is played with sincerity and charisma by Takeshi Katô. And the older samurai, Isaburo, is played by that incomparable icon of Japanese cinema, Toshirô Mifune. When he's acting in Kurosawa films, I sometimes find Mifune a little hammy, but in this film he gives an extremely dignified and simply wonderful performance. (I particularly like his little laugh of disdain, which he unleashes when his superiors make unreasonable requests - "ho ho ho!")
Of course, even the best actors in the world need the support of a strong director, and they've got that support here. Unlike Kurosawa, director Masaki Kobayashi doesn't add much Western-style "flair" to his movies; instead, his films (so far as I can tell) are more starkly beautiful and gradually paced. Some might argue that Kobayashi's style is actually a little dull, but I've been conditioned to slowly paced foreign films and I don't mind it a bit. In fact, I appreciate the way that Kobayashi builds up tension and then hits the audience with a really satisfying payoff.
In short, everything about this movie works - the script, the actors, the design, the direction. It features a lovely romance, some cool (if stylized) action, and genuinely surprising plot twists. There's some explicit violence towards the end, too, but unlike most American films, "Samurai Rebellion" doesn't glorify combat. Fighting is depicted as a destructive last resort.
I was perhaps being a little glib when I described the movie as feminist - a Western viewer might not recognize it as such - but it certainly does feature one of the strongest and most compelling female characters that I've encountered in a long time. For that reason alone, this is worth seeing. But the film's many other virtues are impressive, too, and have helped to propel "Samurai Rebellion" right to the top of my list of favorite movies.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Cute but trite
Kung Fu Panda is a cool-looking movie, and fun, and unlike many summer movies, it did not annoy or offend me. So yeah, I'm sort of glad that I saw it.
That said, though, I would've appreciated a more original script. As it stands, Kung Fu Panda feels like it was cobbled together from the leftovers of 100 other movies involving chosen warriors, sagely mentors, crises of confidence and spooky supervillains. I recognized scenes lifted from Star Wars, from various karate movies, and even from the long-forgotten (or so I thought) Judge Dredd! This is not exactly a trailblazing film, in other words.
Also, I actually disapproved of Kung Fu Panda's underlying message about always "following your dream," even if it's (a) utterly implausible and (b) involves telling your family to buzz off. You see, at the start of the film, the panda is working in his dad's noodle shop, but he dreams of being a karate master - even though he's lazy and fat. So, in order to become the hero, the panda has to reject his father's life's work and, through no particular effort of his own, become a super-powerful warrior.
Call me Mr. Cranky-Pants, but I think that message might actually be bad for little kids. The film, in short, tells kids to be dissatisfied with ordinary jobs - like working in a restaurant - and encourages them to pursue ridiculous unlikely jobs, like unstoppable warrior hero. It annoys me, really, that hundreds of Hollywood movies are all about vaulting over ordinary people (like the panda's dad) in order to make it big. Foreign films, you'll notice, don't always have this "become a rock star" message, and are actually about realistic things and realistic people. But not American movies, noooo...American movies tell you that you can become a karate master without exercise and leave your boring dad and his boring everyday job in the dust.
Right, enough ranting. I suppose I've been spoiled by watching too many foreign movies lately, and I can no longer get behind cute formula fiction like Kung Fu Panda. That doesn't mean I hated this movie. The animation was nice, the action was cool, the celebrity voices impressed. I just wish that a single original idea - or even a shred of realism - had been displayed as well.
Starts great, ends weak
It's nice to have Indiana Jones back, even if this is his second-worst movie (after Temple of Doom).
I think "Crystal Skull" starts off great. The early scenes have tremendous visual wit -- sue me, but I love the prairie dog humor -- and the stunts are suitably spectacular. I don't even mind the atomic bomb testing scene, which so many reviewers seem to hate; I find it quite in keeping with the outrageousness and total lack of realism found throughout the entire Indy series.
After the electrifying opening, the film slows down a lot, but not necessarily in a bad way. The character "bonding" scenes between Indy and his new sidekick, Mutt, are handled pretty well and deserve gradual, careful development. All the lengthy exposition about the Crystal Skull is less successful, however.
Unfortunately, I think the skull is a poor choice for the movie's central artifact. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail both have tremendous significance to our culture, but the Crystal Skull has no such cultural resonance. It's just...some weird artifact, and the script does nothing to make it interesting.
So, as the movie ambles along, and the Skull becomes more important, things sort of disintegrate in my view. Indeed, the ending of the film seems totally random to me; there's nothing particularly compelling about the skull, about it origins, or about the whole final confrontation with the villains. Everything unfolds in a fairly predictable, special-effects-laden manner; there are no last-minute twists, no real surprises.
Fortunately, the final third of the movie is (somewhat) redeemed by Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood. She's always been an extremely charismatic actress, and she makes a great partner for Indy, so her reappearance adds some much-needed fun and emotion to the movie just when the plot begins to go stale.
So, in the final analysis, I like this movie -- to an extent. I don't agree with all the snarky film critics who have cracked endless jokes about Harrison Ford's age; I think he does well here, and I've never had any problem with movies about aging heroes (see also Rocky Balboa, Star Trek VI). I also don't quite agree with the fan reviewers who describe this film as some kind of sacrilege produced by former geniuses Lucas and Spielburg. I've never put either filmmaker on some kind of pedestal; they're both hit-or-miss, in my view. This film represents a middling effort for them both, and for Indy.
And hey, middling Indiana Jones ain't half bad.
Part bad Godzilla movie, part bad domestic drama
I recently completed one of my major life goals -- watching every Godzilla movie. Unfortunately, I left this turkey for last.
OK, so "All Monsters Attack" does have its heart in the right place. It's a well-meaning story about a young boy who feels lonely and alienated because (a) he's bullied and (b) his parents aren't around because they work too much. So this kid daydreams a lot about Godzilla, adopting the big monster as a sort of replacement father, I suppose.
It's a pretty interesting setup, but unfortunately, I think the film is ultimately too inept and annoying to really work. The kid is cutesy and dull, the bullies are corny, and the domestic conflict is played out in the most unsubtle way imaginable. Plus the film has other obvious defects, including one of the most annoying music scores imaginable.
Other commentators have defended this movie on the grounds that it's more thoughtful than other Godzilla fare, and I respect that point of view. However, I also think it's perfectly fair for Godzilla fans to be disappointed with this movie's essential childishness and total lack of realism. I mean, it's not like this is some secret drama masterpiece here -- compared to an Ozu or Kurosawa film, it's enormously tacky. So I'd rather watch a standard Godzilla movie with monster grappling and city trashing than this kind of experimental movie that, well, totally fails.
Really, to me, "All Monsters Attack" is the worst of both worlds; it's part bad Godzilla movie, part bad domestic drama, which makes it 100% excruciating (except for the occasional imaginative bit). And I honestly believe that it takes a *very* indulgent fan to appreciate Godzilla at his worst, which is exactly where he's at here.
Ladri di biciclette (1948)
It's a classic movie... and I hate it.
For years, I was the stereotypical "ugly American" who was too bored by foreign films to give them a fair chance. But that's changed lately. These days, I like nothing better than popping a Bergman or Kurosawa or Ozu movie into my DVD player, and I'm becoming more and more intolerant of crass Hollywood fare.
Bear with me, because my tedious introductory comments are leading up to a point. And that point is - "Bicycle Thieves" is perhaps THE essential movie that turned me off foreign films for so many years. "Bicycle Thieves" is, in sad fact, the movie that chased me away from subtitles, away from the arty-farty world of elite cinema. It took a long time for me to work up the courage to watch another foreign film after I saw this little gem, I can tell you.
But why, you might reasonably ask, did "Bicycle Thieves" have such a profoundly negative effect on me? Because I found it simply too depressing for words. Depressing...to an almost absurd degree.
The movie, I'm sure you know, is about a dude who needs a bicycle to get a decent job and support his family. He pawns some of his last worldly possessions in order to obtain said bicycle. And the bicycle is *immediately* stolen. Our protagonist spends the whole movie trying to get the bicycle back, and even succeeds in tracking down the thief, but he is obstructed at every turn by jerks and ultimately frustrated in his quest.
So, in the end, our hero tries to steal a bicycle himself during a moment of despair. Unfortunately for him, about 10,000 people witness the attempted theft and perform a group tackle on him to stop it. He is publicly shamed in front of his son, and then slinks away. End of depressing movie.
What exactly is the message here? Society sucks? Poverty is inescapable? Don't respond to stealing with more stealing? Or, at least, never try to lift someone else's bike when 10,000 people are ready to spring upon you from every doorway and stop you? The truth is, I can't figure out the movie's message. Nor can I relate much to the depths of poverty shown here - can the guy really not afford to buy another bicycle, or borrow one, or *something*? Or must his whole life be an endless tale of frustration and woe?
Call me superficial...call me bourgeois...call me uninformed...but I think this movie is just a drag, a slog, a pain in my posterior. It's the kind of foreign movie that turns Americans off better foreign movies, and that's a shame. I wish I could see something sophisticated about it, but I don't - what's so sophisticated about being relentlessly dark, to the point of stretching credibility?
In short, I'll gladly take the bitter-sweetness of a foreign art film like "Tokyo Story" over the bitter-bitterness of this one. Real life is usually better than what you see in this movie, folks. And when life does get this bad...I'm not sure I wanna look at it.
Divorzio all'italiana (1961)
A pretty good movie that, alas, got on my nerves...
Let me begin by declaring that I liked "Divorce, Italian Style"...sort of. I come to both bury and praise this movie at the same time, if such a thing is possible.
It's not a bad film, by any means. In fact, it possesses many of the greatest strengths of foreign cinema - it's got plenty of wit, bite, intelligence, and the kind of cold insight into human nature that is often lacking in glamorized Hollywood films. In short, it's well done.
And yet, it annoyed me. Something about the enormously cynical plot - which involves an unhappily married man (Marcello Mastroianni) trying to break free from his clingy wife - bugged me. Perhaps I got just tired of Marcello's world-weary persona after a while; it initially amused me, then started to grate. It's tough to watch such a superficial weed of a character for a whole movie.
And perhaps I also got a little tired of the wife, who is depicted as an endlessly cheerful weirdo with a hideous unibrow and a mustache. Cheerful, and fawning. Extremely fawning. In fact, the film contains innumerable close-ups of her fawning face. But here's the problem - how many shots of a fawning woman with a hideous unibrow does any normal viewer want to see? After a while, it just got too ugly for me to look at.
Perhaps I'm being frivolous. But I'm trying to suggest, in my own clumsy way, that the movie was a little too grotesque for me. The characters were a little too bizarre, the shouting was a little too loud, and the satire narrowly missed the mark. I wanted to like it, really... but it ended up irritating me. Shame, really - but I'm sure that many Italian movie buffs will love it despite my grumblings.
This Sporting Life (1963)
Dark but Rewarding
"This Sporting Life" is in some ways a sinister version of "Rocky" - a tale of a tough-guy athlete taking his best shot at the big time. But while "Rocky" presents a fairly optimistic view of the world, this film is definitely of a darker nature.
Dark. Yes, that's the key word for "This Sporting Life." The movie weaves a sad tale of poverty, unrequited loves and human failings. It's not entertaining to watch by any means, but if you brace yourself for the film's depressing impact you will probably find it rewarding.
Several commentators on this site have suggested that the movie doesn't work because the central character, Frank Machin - played by an excellent Richard Harris - is too thuggish and unsympathetic. I can't agree with that perspective, however. Machin is a bit of a beast, sure, but he also demonstrates sensitivity (he likes kids!) and tremendous loyalty to the people around him. He makes mistakes and behaves cruelly sometimes, but I think that it's a bit snobbish and bourgeois to dismiss him as a mere thug.
Harris' performance as Machin certainly helps to ground a film that is perhaps too weak on the plot side to be a true four-star classic. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, ranging from Rachel Roberts as the tragic landlady Mrs. Hammand to William ("Doctor Who") Hartnell as the lonely old man, Johnson. The acting all seems naturalistic and believable to me, though I suppose I'm not qualified to judge whether everybody got their regional accents right.
Director Lindsay Anderson, meanwhile, gives the film a bleak, cold and very realistic look. Somehow, he manages to make shadowy suburban streets look like the eeriest settings imaginable, and he also directs the rugby scenes with tremendous violence and energy.
I just wish that "This Sporting Life" was a bit stronger on plot. I'm not exactly sure what it's missing, but I think it's merely excellent rather than a classic. And it's tough to watch such a dark movie that's not quite perfect. Still, I would definitely recommend this to cinema buffs and casual viewers who wouldn't be too put off by the bleakness.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
All Aboard the Hype Express!
Now here's another movie that critics seemed to love, and I just plain hated. Sometimes it's annoying to be out of step with the Universe, and yet in this instance I think I have a strong case.
Frankly, I think "3:10 to Yuma" is an excessively violent, utterly unbelievable and even somewhat mean-spirited film. In vintage Hollywood tradition, the movie tries to make Russell Crowe's character - a crazy, murderous, gun-toting maniac - into a sort of folk hero, by pitting him against other characters who are even sleazier than he is. However, I did not like Crowe's character for a single moment; nor did I appreciate the film's attempts to put him on some kind of pedestal.
My other major problem with the film is that it's paced terribly. There are actually too many action scenes, and each one becomes progressively more unbelievable. An incredible number of people get killed - too many people, in fact. I simply can't believe that so many people would sacrifice their lives to perform some of the senseless missions depicted in this film. And, unbelievably enough, Crowe's character is considered to be a highly successful gang leader - despite the fact that he keeps getting large numbers of his men killed in clumsy operations. Ridiculous.
Worse yet, the action scenes are interspersed with repetitive "character development" moments in which Crowe, seated at a dinner table or near a fire on the prairie, talks trash to the other characters, who just passively sit there and allow themselves to be psychoanalyzed by a crazy gun-toting murderous maniac. Hmm...right.
I know that a lot of people like this movie. It is exactly the kind of movie that looks great to many critics and film buffs, but I just can't enjoy it because I think it's packed with movie clichés and it's got a messed-up moral compass. The more I see of sensitive foreign films, the less I like this kind of American movie - the kind where lots of people get shot in the head, and it's supposed to be OK because the bad guy is more interesting than the good guys. Yikes...
A clever social satire...with flatulence!
Over the past several months, I've evolved into a full-blown devotee of the Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu. Just when I was tiring of the phoniness, violence and excess of contemporary American movies, I discovered Ozu's quiet (but by no means boring) films and was deeply impressed by his insights into human emotion, family relationships and society.
But while Ozu films like Late Spring and Tokyo Story are clearly masterpieces, Good Morning is not his usual fare. Unlike Ozu's weightier dramas, this film focuses a lot on seemingly trivial matters like suburban gossip and, believe it or not, schoolboy farting competitions. At first, I wasn't sure exactly what to think of Good Morning - the lack of a strong central plot and apparent silliness of the themes initially put me off somewhat.
However, by the time I was done watching Good Morning, I realized that Ozu was even cleverer and more subtle than I had previously thought. You see, while Good Morning appears to be a light comedy on the surface, it actually has a lot of perceptive things to say about materialism, envy and the unfortunate superficiality of most human communication. (A major theme of the film is that people are good at saying trivial things to each other - such as the title phrase - but not good at saying emotional things that really matter.)
So, this movie is definitely deeper than it appears to be at first glance. As a viewer, I could both chuckle immaturely at the fart jokes and appreciate the film's deeper social commentary at the same time. It's rare indeed to find a film that offers up both crass humor and spiritual insight, but Good Morning somehow pulls off that remarkable trick.
Although there are better Ozu films than this one, Good Morning is another solid entry in his amazing body of work - and its unusual subject matter helps to disprove the somewhat silly stereotype that every Ozu film was about a distinguished father trying to marry off his daughter.
Action, emotion...and general brilliance.
While some so-called classics leave me cold, "Harakiri" (as it's known in the USA) really fires my imagination. This is a rare movie - the kind that I just can't stop recommending to people.
Much of the film's appeal is based on surprising narrative twists, so I'm reluctant to delve too deeply into the plot here. But the basic setup is as follows - Japan has entered a time of peace, and consequently many samurai are unemployed and suffering in extreme poverty. Some samurai develop a ploy of threatening to commit suicide, but only so they can get sympathetic handouts of food and money from rich families. The film explores what happens when that ploy backfires in a very serious way.
Director Masaki Kobayashi paces the film very slowly - by comparison, many Kurosawa and even Ozu films are breezy, and of course contemporary American films move approximately 800x faster. However, I am never really bored while watching "Harakiri"; the film slowly builds toward a (very rewarding) climax, while filling in the characters' compelling backstories. In short, this movie requires - but pays back - patience. Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded with interesting revelations and even some exciting (and surprisingly violent) fight scenes.
Due to its unusual blend of action, emotion and social commentary, "Harakiri" has shot right up my list of favorite films. I'm tempted to describe it as a Tarantino-style film, only with more of a conscience and a sophisticated worldview. But I suppose that any such comparisons between "Harakiri" and American movies must be broad and a little crude. Kobayashi's film stands on its own, of course, and is well worth seeking out for any cinema fan.
A decent time at the movies, but no classic.
I like monster movies a lot, including both "The Blair Witch Project" and "Godzilla" (the Japanese one, not the Matthew Broderick one). So I guess it was inevitable that I'd see "Cloverfield," which is frequently described as the love child of those two films.
Unfortunately, I didn't find "Cloverfield" to be as good as its source material. This movie, unlike the Blair Witch or Godzilla films, focuses an awful lot on character development. That might work, except the characters in "Cloverfield" are mainly annoying yuppies involved in really shallow, neurotic romances. I felt sympathy for them during certain scenes, yes, but that was only because they were suffering - not because I especially liked them as people.
The other disadvantage "Cloverfield" has in comparison with its predecessors is that it features a sort of lame monster. I mean, sure, Godzilla looks fake and all, but at least I can identify him as a dragon-dinosaur hybrid, which is cool. Without giving too much away, the beast in "Cloverfield" just looks...bizarre. Icky. Messed up. I didn't think that it had a particularly iconic or memorable design, in short. I doubt that anybody will remember what it looked like 10 years from now.
I guess I'm being a little harsh, though, because "Cloverfield" has some good suspense moments and memorable apocalyptic imagery. And the characters aren't a total loss - at least they're loyal to each other, and occasionally one of them gets a good line.
It's just not a great movie, that's all. I'm a little tired, I guess, of horror films that focus on 20-something "beautiful people," and I long for the days when monster movies featured wise middle-aged professor characters and plucky journalists instead of rejects from "Dawson's Creek."
Still, if you're interested in enjoying a few scares and experiencing mild nausea in the process, "Cloverfield" will deliver for you.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Beautiful but barren...
I'm maybe not the best person to review No Country for Old Men. I long ago became tired of movies about assassins, drugs, shootings, and suitcases full of money. I feel as though Hollywood has been recycling the same seedy crime material for years - and so have the Coen brothers. Movies like this one, Fargo, Blood Simple, Sin City, Pulp Fiction, and Smokin' Aces all seem to come from the same mold, and that mold is getting mighty overused, in my opinion.
On the plus side, I think the Coen brothers are uniquely gifted at presenting this kind of material. Indeed, No Country for Old Men is, in many ways, one of the most beautiful and suspenseful films that I've seen in a long time. It's full of striking images of the desert, interesting point-of-view shots, and incredibly intimate close-ups of actors with fascinating faces. Even the sound effects are great; they're loud, vivid and realistic, and they genuinely enhance the action.
But beyond all that surface glitz, what is the movie about? I never really understood or cared for any of the characters. The protagonist is unsympathetic from the beginning, for instance. Tommy Lee Jones, meanwhile, gives a good performance but seems to be virtually trapped in a subplot. Furthermore, his "deep" dialog did very little for me - "mock profundity" is perhaps an apt description. The villain is great, I suppose, but once you've seen him kill twelve people, there's not much point in seeing him kill a thirteenth, is there?
I don't want to bury this movie, because it's very well done. But I'm annoyed that, at usual, film critics and students are heaping an avalanche of praise on a movie that's really violent, really strange, and really alienating. Yeah, sure, it plays with narrative conventions in interesting ways. But it doesn't take true genius to frustrate an audience's expectations, and storytelling gimmicks alone can't save a story that's so barren. I suppose you could hunt for deeper meaning - as people tend to do on message boards - but I don't think there's much to find. The movie is a beautiful toy, and not too much more.
A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987)
Uneven, but generally worth it
I consider Steven Fry & Hugh Laurie to be old buddies of mine, since I grew up watching "Blackadder" and "Jeeves & Wooster." Naturally, I thought I'd give "A Bit of Fry & Laurie" a try when it came out on U.S. DVD. So far, I've seen the first two seasons.
The show sees the boys operating at their most cerebral and bizarre; many, many of the sketches are unashamedly intellectual and/or surreal. While there are many hilarious moments, I find perhaps half of the sketches to be either flat or alienating in their grotesqueness. The show is a weird mishmash of great stuff and complete clunkers. Generally, I find Laurie funnier than Fry.
The first season is good on the whole, but the second season sees Fry and Laurie recycling too many of their characters for repeat skits. I really didn't need to watch the endless adventures of John the businessman or the soft-spoken secret agents, for instance. I wanted more new stuff.
But when the sketches are great, they're great. I can't get the nursing home skit with the cocoa out of my head. But something about the bad sketches really annoys me. Sometimes being a little too smart and too smarmy kills the joke, you know what I mean? Pitch your material lower boys, pitch lower! You're dealing with an American here!
Maybe I'll buy season three when I have some dough handy -- I'm just not sure.
30 Days of Night (2007)
Have we forgotten that vampires are supposed to be seductive?
I grew up watching really olde English vampire movies, typically featuring buxom actresses in flowing white gowns and Christopher Lee swanning around in a big Dracula cape. So, I have a pretty romantic/sexual picture of vampires in my head.
Contemporary vampires, of the sort you get in this movie, strike me as too demonic, sexless and savage. These new vamps just rip people limb from limb instead of trying to seduce them. Where's the fun in that? If showing disgusting gore is the whole point, then why not just make a werewolf or zombie movie instead?
Right, rant over. Once I accepted that the vampires in "30 Days of Night" would be gross, I actually enjoyed the movie somewhat. The snowbound setting is really eerie and cool, and the directing is pretty good for a modern horror movie. Even Josh Harnett manages to be likable, and the main vampire has an occasional interesting line.
I never fully bought into the main premise of the movie -- namely, that a rag-tag band of characters could successfully hide from a swarm of vampires for a whole month. The vampires start off seeming really powerful and clever, but they must take their stupid pills afterwards because they don't even think to search the general store for human survivors. I mean, come on, where else are people gonna hide? All the supplies are there.
But despite the grossness, and the odd lapse in logic, I enjoyed this movie. I got a few good scares out of it. Vampires + snow = creepy. It's certainly worth a look for horror fans.
Was this really a ground-breaking Western?
I like individual scenes in Unforgiven, but I'm not sure that I like the movie as a whole. It's got a good cast and good intentions, but ultimately I find it a little too preachy, and I'm not sure that its moral compass is pointing in exactly the right direction.
Also, I just can't agree with critics who call this film a "ground-breaking" Western that "broke the mold" by condemning violence instead of glorifying it. I can think of many anti-violence Westerns that are years or even decades older than Unforgiven -- The Ox-Bow Incident springs to mind, and even Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West showed the horrible consequences of violence without getting on a soapbox about it.
On a similar note, I'd like to point out that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had already explored the idea of "debunking" mythological Western figures, while The Wild Bunch exposed an aging gunslinger's fallibility by showing him slip and fall while trying to mount a horse. My general point -- I do have one, I think -- is that everything allegedly "groundbreaking" about Unforgiven had appeared in Westerns before 1992. This film is not some radical break with Western tradition; it owes its predecessors in a big way.
Indeed, I think Unforgiven's rather obvious moralizing is vintage Western stuff. The film's anti-violence message is well-intentioned, of course, and I almost feel like a jerk for pointing out that it's hammered home with no subtlety and sometimes hokey dialog.
I don't want to bury this movie, because I think some of the performances are great, the locations are perfect, and even the melancholy theme tune is well-chosen. But I do want to challenge the notion that this is some kind of totally original, really deep piece of art. It's really not that deep; it raises old questions in old ways, and doesn't necessarily suggest interesting answers or provide too much food for thought. Maybe it's thoughtful by movie standards, but it's hardly literature, is it?
Unforgiven also has some problems that have nothing to do with its message. For instance, I find it a little problematic that Gene Hackman sort of steals the movie from Eastwood. Perhaps I'm being harsh, but I find Eastwood's stoic acting boring, and I frequently think that his co-stars trump him (see also Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef). Even Richard Harris makes more of an impression than Eastwood with just a cameo, I think. Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, is so typecast as a sagely mellow guy that I feel sorry for him.
However, as I said, there are individual great scenes. The "Duck of Death" confrontation, the exchanges between Eastwood's character and the prostitute, and the various brutal killings are all extremely memorable. But I just don't think the whole thing hangs together, and I get the uncomfortable feeling that the film ends up glorifying violence anyway despite trying to do exactly the opposite. Who knows?
Ultimately, I feel very little guilt in proclaiming that a fun/violent Western like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is actually a lot better than Unforgiven, even if it isn't as self-consciously PC. I have no immediate plans to go out and shoot anybody myself, therefore I don't really need Unforgiven to dissuade me from committing murder, do I? So, I'd rather be entertained by my Westerns than preached at by them. Know what I mean?
Le samouraï (1967)
Overrated movie alert...
Pardon my bluntness, but I think "Le Samourai" is chiefly a film for movie critics and movie snobs. Average viewers will, I think, be bored rigid by it. And who can blame them? I'm afraid this is one of those movies that's all about "mood" and "atmosphere" and an intangible sense of "cool" - it certainly isn't about characters, and it doesn't feature much of a story to speak of. The only interesting person in the film, in my view, is the police inspector, but even he doesn't have much by way of character development or interior life.
Mainly, the film consists of Alain Delon wandering around various urban settings in his "cool" hat and "cool" trenchcoat. The pacing is purely glacial, and oftentimes I really didn't care about where he was going or what he was up to. To make matters worse, he's a singularly incompetent hit-man who's about as subtle and stealthy as the Kool-Aid Man.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh on this film because I don't normally like movies about criminals. It sort of offends me, to be honest, that so many films glamorize gangsters, hit-men, and other forms of gutter life. What's so intrinsically fascinating about crooks, anyway? Are we all so repressed and violent that we need to get vicarious jollies by rooting for on-screen killers?
And yet, I do like some movies about criminals. In "Get Carter," the central character at least has a strong motivation and a personality to go with it. "Kind Hearts and Coronets," meanwhile, features a killer who's quite smart and witty. "Le Samourai," on the other hand, is about a killer with no real motivation, personality, smarts or wit. I can't find anything to admire about him, anything to latch on to.
At best, this movie can be judged a cold masterpiece. But, in my perhaps crass view, it's a cold turkey. Some foreign films are masterpieces that put Hollywood to shame, while others are just plain dull and pretentious. I think this falls into the latter camp.
Another solid adaptation
To me, the Harry Potter films are all solid, perfectly reasonable adaptations of J.K. Rowling's books. The cool special effects, stunning sets, and eccentric English character actors work together beautifully to bring the world of the books to life. Certainly, the movies are not as deep or rich as the books - but that's only to be expected, since they're shorter than the books by necessity.
Alas, a lot of Harry Potter fans seem to attack the movies because they "cut out" parts of the books. I can understand their frustration, but really, it would be impossible to adapt the books in their entirety without making the movies about 4 hours long apiece. So, cut-down versions are simply inevitable.
And, in the case of "Order of the Phoenix," I think the filmmakers were right to trim some fat off the book. Rowling's novel is pretty good, but I remember finding it frustrating in parts. The plot concerns a lot of petty bureaucrats in the Ministry of Magic denying that Lord Voldemort has returned, and their obstinacy gets a little tiresome after a while. Even the "edited" film version drags a bit in the middle, as ministry officials Cornelius Fudge and Dolores Umbridge do their best to tie Harry Potter up in lots of red tape. I suppose it's a realistic plot, but it's also borderline tedious.
Thankfully, both the book and the movie end with satisfying action. The climatic confrontation between the good and evil wizards was fun to read, but arguably the action works even better on screen. Pleasingly enough, the old professor, Dumbledore, gets to joint he fight and show off some funky wizard moves.
Speaking of Dumbledore, I should like to defend the actor who plays him in this film, Michael Gambon. I enjoy his performance a lot; his Dumbledore is a little more eccentric and aloof than Richard Harris's, and I think that take on the character works well. Some Potter fans tend to slam Gambon, suggesting that he's some kind of unworthy successor to Harris. But honestly, I think Gambon's awesome - and he did star in "The Singing Detective," which is often praised as the greatest TV miniseries of all time. So he's hardly a total Piltdown man, is he?
Unfortunately, I've ended up writing a defensive review of this movie, since people have slammed it for the plot trims and Gambon's performance. But I guess I just wanted to address some of the common criticisms. I'll admit that this certainly isn't the best Potter movie - it's too draggy in parts, and the direction/design are just OK - but it is definitely another worthy adaptation that doesn't deserve a lot of stick for not being completest.
"Last of the Time Lords" is another poorly plotted, overly sentimental, corny-looking episode of the new Doctor Who that is destined to be hailed as a masterpiece by enthusiastic fans.
Alas, I must remain in the long-suffering minority on the issue of this weird revival. I was willing to be open-minded about the new Who, but episodes like this have pretty much finished me off as a viewer. Bluntly, I think Russell T. Davies is a horrible writer of science fiction - he constantly recycles plot elements, he clearly understands nothing of real science, and he resolves all of his stories with patently ludicrous deus ex machina endings. This story, in particular, features one of the most laughably unconvincing resolutions in the history of filmed entertainment.
His "emotional" writing is way off, too. Much of the new Doctor Who is dedicated to sarcastic mocking of contemporary culture; it comes across as quite cynical and cranky. And yet, the series also veers into laughably unsubtle sentimental territory, as characters weep and wail and declare their feelings in clunky, totally artificial lines of dialog that should ring false to anyone who has ever watched and appreciated quality drama. Anyway, the guy can't really have his cake and eat it too in this regard: he can't make the show both bitterly cynical and ridiculously sentimental. The clash of tones is dissonant and annoying.
Oh, and the show is still cheap, too. The depiction of post-conquest Earth in this story was corny and utterly unconvincing. If it wasn't for a few modern CGI shots, I might've thought I was watching a 1983 BBC production instead of a 2007 one.
In short, it was junk. The older I get, it seems, the less interest I have in these childish, technology-obsessed science fiction properties. So is anybody up for watching "Floating Weeds" instead? Now there's a production that can make you cry without resorting to cheap dramatics, ham acting, and a bad special effects apocalypse.
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Can't touch the original...
"Escape from New York" is by no means a classic film, but it's memorably dark, seedy, suspenseful and even funny. You might call it a worthy cult favorite. Alas, "Escape from L.A." is not nearly as memorable - in fact, it plays out like a tired remake of its far more amusing predecessor.
Both films have essentially the same premise; corrupt government officials send criminal tough guy "Snake" Plissken to infiltrate the ruins of a once-great city and retrieve some MacGuffin for them. In both films, Snake is reluctant to cooperate, but the government secures his compliance by threatening his life. So, Snake duly treks off to an urban wasteland, wasting thugs and meeting a variety of wacky characters on his way to completing his desperate mission.
Because the two films are so similar, I find "Escape from L.A." tedious - it simply doesn't break enough new ground. And, to make matters worse, this tepid sequel does everything worse than the original movie. The villain is inferior, the president is inferior, and even the special effects are inferior (note the positively laughable CGI when Snake pilots his submarine to L.A.; the approach to New York in the first film is infinitely classier.)
And, though both films are comedies (of a sort), I find that the jokes in the first are simply better. In "L.A.," there are some attempts at social satire, but by and large they don't work. For instance, the much-praised "plastic surgery" segment feels really isolated and pointless to me. It's a one-joke sequence that goes nowhere and contributes nothing to the plot. Ultimately, I think the first film has the edge in the comedy department because it was co-written by Nick Castle, who reportedly lightened up the script and was quite a wit in general (though Castle is credited on this movie, I believe it's only because he wrote the original film.)
Perhaps the crowning aggravation of "Escape from L.A." is its exceedingly preachy social commentary. Now, I happen to be fairly liberal, so I agree with some of this film's criticisms of the religious right - but I also find the presentation of these criticisms to be superficial, condescending, and obnoxious. To be perfectly blunt, this movie is not literate enough to have serious political aims. It's just too silly and in-your-face; it doesn't have the subtlety to work as a satire, and it certainly lacks balance. Suffice to say, if you're conservative, this movie will annoy you, and even if you're an open-minded liberal, it will probably still annoy you by representing your views so poorly.
Yeah, this is basically a dud, though I sort of enjoy the Luddite-like sentiments in the concluding scenes. It's got some good cameos, a few decent scenes, but in the end...it just ain't the original. What a waste of 50 million bucks!
Doctor Who: The Sound of Drums (2007)
Am I watching the same show as everybody else?
"The Sound of Drums" isn't entirely without merit, but it's pretty close.
I just can't fathom the popularity of the new Doctor Who. I found this episode noisy, unoriginal, childish, and cheap-looking, and yet apparently it's being widely praised on the Internet. Either I'm a cranky moron, or Doctor Who fans are so in love with their favorite show that they've lost the ability to see its very obvious flaws.
Firstly, this is a highly repetitive and derivative episode. We already had a politics-oriented story in the first season, so the goofy Downing Street material here is much the same as what we already saw in "World War III." Also, this is the third consecutive season finale to involve flying robots attacking Earth, not to mention the eighth (or ninth, or perhaps thirtieth) story to prominently feature cellular phones as part of the plot. Oh, and the rubbish sphere aliens look exactly like the interrogation robot from "Star Wars" - so this dross is original in what respect, exactly? I feel like I've seen it all before, done better.
This episode is also hampered by some incredibly hammy performances. Martha and Captain Jack are superfluous and annoying; they seem to exist only to look worried and act as sounding boards for David Tennant's nerdy, technobabble-spewing Doctor. John Simm's Master is...OK, I guess, but his loony moments are embarrassingly over-the-top and, to me, they only serve to undermine his aura of menace.
So why can't they play the villains with genuine conviction on the new Doctor Who? Why does it all have to be tongue-in-cheek? Why all the tedious self-mocking humor? Roger Delgado used to play the Master with a wry little smile, but he could be serious too, whereas Simm just seems to be treating the role like comedy larks. I know this sort of goof-ball, insincere approach is popular in genre fiction now, but if sincerity ever becomes trendy again, this deliberately "funny" material will look horribly dated.
Yeah, I'm just mystified at this point. To me, the new Doctor Who is just a mess of tedious soap opera drama, smugness, primitive computer effects, condescending social commentary, and teeny-bopper angst. And yet, its no-talent production team is practically worshiped by Doctor Who fans. In fact, the praise for this bizarre series goes so over-the-top that I end up overcompensating by criticizing it too harshly. But somebody's got to be critical, right? Otherwise we all might end up mistaking this clichéd silliness for some kind of modern sci-fi masterpiece.