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A wife suspects that her irresponsible husband is a killer
"Suspicion" is a classically Hitchcockian film, with Joan Fontaine as a woman who marries a charming scoundrel, played by Cary Grant, who she begins to think might kill for money. Parts of the film, such as Grant's "courting" techniques, seem rather dated, but the tension builds well, and my interest was held throughout. The ending, however, seems tacked-on and very unsatisfying in execution, even if not in content. This seemed to me to be a lesser film than the best of Hitchcock's output during the 40's, such as the earlier "Rebecca" (also with Fontaine) and the later "Notorious", but anyone who enjoys Hitchcock's films in general will likely enjoy this one as well.
Overall Rating: 3 stars (out of 4), or 7 (out of 10)
The Indian Runner (1991)
A policeman's troubled brother returns from Vietnam
Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER is a very carefully drawn character study about two brothers. One brother is a policeman and former farmer who has found a happy, stable existence with a wife and son. The other is a returning Vietnam vet who is angry at the world and everyone in it. The film follows the viewpoint of the former sibling as the latter one moves in and out of his life. Penn shows an amazing patience with the story and the characters, letting them develop at their own pace, without the imposition of the sort of contrivances used by lesser films to generate false drama. Were it not for a tendency for the movie to get slightly overwrought at a couple of key dramatic moments, it would be nearly perfect. As it is, it still stands as the sort of patient, powerful character drama that one cannot imagine being made by a big Hollywood studio.
Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4); or 8 (out of 10)
"Repulsion" is a great example of how to make a truly scary movie: The trick is not to fill the screen with monsters or indestructible serial killers, it is to portray fear in a way that will be familiar to the audience. It is clear from early on in the film that the lead character, Carol, played brilliantly by an extremely young-looking Catherine Deneuve, is not exactly normal. When her sister leaves her alone in their shared London apartment for a few days, however, the things that scare Carol are the sorts of things that have scared a lot of people spending the night alone, such as hearing (imagined) footsteps in the hallway and the like. Of course, while normal people get a brief fright from such a thing, Carol descends into a madness of hallucinations. The movie is seen almost entirely from her point of view, using techniques borrowed by later directors such as Darren Aronofsky for his movie, "Pi", which gives the entire movie a claustrophobic feeling that enhances the impact of Carol's hallucinations.
There are no doubt people who would like to explicate this film as an exploration of sexual repression or the like, and perhaps they are indeed hitting the mark in doing so, but this film works brilliantly as pure cinema, with no metaphoric subtext needed.
Overall Rating: 4 stars (out of 4), or 9 (out of 10)
Rough Magic (1995)
The seeds of a good movie are there in "Rough Magic", a film with an excellent cast, an intriguing premise, and a great location. However, these seeds never really germinate, as the film fails to be convincing. As the movie progresses, the characters behave in an increasingly arbitrary manner while the events of the plot become similarly arbitrary. Thus, by the end, my willing suspension of disbelief was completely gone and I found myself bored. I think that the film was trying for the sort of magic realism found in movies like "Like Water for Chocolate", but the key to magic realism lies at least as much in the realism as it does in the magic. While "Like Water for Chocolate" worked because we believed in the characters, "Rough Magic" fails, despite some genuinely entertaining moments, because we don't.
Overall Rating: 1 1/2 stars (out of 4), or 4 (out of 10)
Body Snatchers (1993)
"Body Snatchers" is the second remake of the venerable "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", and it serves as yet more evidence that remakes are usually a bad idea. The plot involves some pods of rather nebulous origin that kill people while they sleep and replace them with emotionless copies. The filmmakers steadfastly ignore all of the interesting metaphoric possibilities of this plot in favor of failed attempts to make 3-dimensional characters, through overuse of cliched familial strife, and a series of very uninvolving, uninteresting, un-scary action sequences. The only thing of any interest in this film is the characteristically luminous Gabrielle Anwar, who strives vainly to make her cardboard-thin character interesting. Forget this pathetic version of the film, and rent the 1956 original instead.
Overall Rating: 2 (out of 10), or one-half star (out of 4)
A rather strange, but highly affecting film
"Fearless" is an extremely emotionally effective film, in large part because it steers clear of a lot of the cliches that one could imagine plaguing a movie about an airplane crash survivor. Instead of giving the lead character, Max Klein (played perfectly by Jeff Bridges), some nice, Psych 101 textbook "syndrome" that is condescendingly explained to us by a shrink character, the film concentrates on drawing the audience inside his head so that we can see in a way why he feels like he does. His reaction to the crash is a complete lack of fear. Whenever he begins to feel afraid, he is compelled to do something almost suicidally dangerous to prove to himself that he can overcome the fear again. This leads to some visually extraordinary scenes. We are also shown other crash survivors with different reactions, including, most importantly Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), who strikes up a friendship with Max Klein. Although the characters often do some very strange, and sometimes implausible, things (which I won't describe so as not to give away the movie), they make sense in the context of the characters' development.
Notable in the film is an amazingly effective use of music. U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" and the first movement of Henryk Gorecki's beautiful Third Symphony both put in apppearances at extremely critical times in the movie, strongly enhancing the emotional impact of the scenes.
Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10), or 4 stars (out of 4)
Lots of Great Action Sequences
"Ronin" is a great action film that seems to want to be a character study and doesn't quite make it, but it remains a great action film nonetheless. De Niro plays a former American government agent who has been hired by an Irish woman named Dierdre (McElhone) to obtain, as part of a team of other shadowy folk, the film's McGuffin, a briefcase with an unknown valuable something in it, a la "Pulp Fiction". What follows is a number of rather amusing, but not very deep, dialogue scenes interspersed with some magnificent action sequences. The longest car chase in the film (there are several) has to stand as one of the finest examples of this action-movie mainstay. It is notable for its impressive technical proficiency, its high excitment level, and for the great joy that the director seems to have taken in making it; the number of destroyed automobiles left in its wake reach almost "Blues Brothers"-esque proportions. There are a number of other impressive action scenes, all set in very scenic parts of France, and together they form the real core of the movie. The De Niro character is given quite a bit of development time, but I at least never felt that I learned that much about his true motivations and feelings. No matter; the visceral aspects of this movie are more than enough to make it well worth seeing.
Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10), or 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Your Friends & Neighbors (1998)
Interesting, but with occasional character development problems
"Your Friends & Neighbors" is about six people whose personalities range from somewhat superficial and self-absorbed down to frighteningly narcissistic. I've seen movies featuring unsympathetic lead characters before, but I don't ever recall seeing a film where the director seems to actively despise each and every one of his characters so much. A great deal of what goes on in this film is very funny and quite fascinating, if more than a little uncomfortable sometimes. (One scene features what I think must be the longest awkward silence in recent moviemaking.) Too often , though, the characters' motivations are left entirely unclear to the audience, and they seem to be pulled about by unseen motivations. This seems to be the result of too heavy a hand on the part of the writer /director Neil LaBute, who apparently is out not only to make us hate the characters, but to be confused by them and alienated from them as well. On the whole, though, the interesting and funny parts made up for a lot of the things that I never properly understood about the characters, making the movie worth seeing.
Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10), or 3 stars (out of 4)
The Edge (1997)
A Thinking Person's Action Movie
"The Edge" is an example of what can happen when filmmakers respect the essential intelligence of their audience, even when making a film whose putative genre is not exactly known for highly intellectual entries. The film tells the story of three people who are lost in the Canadian Rockies when their plane crashes. From this pedestrian-sounding premise comes a movie that is really about the relationship that develops between two very different men: a brilliant, intellectual billionaire, played with characteristic genius by Anthony Hopkins, and a fashion photographer, played by Alec Baldwin. As the movie progresses, the superficial friendliness that they showed each other in civilization is destroyed and replaced by something much more complex and interesting. The dialogue, written by dialogue god David Mamet, is clever, rhythmic, and thought -provoking. The visceral aspects are also wonderful, with the unbelievably beautiful Canadian wilderness in the background and a rather high-tension action/adventure plot in the foreground. Overall, this is a tense, clever, and wildly entertaining film.
Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10), or 4 stars (out of 4)
The Exorcist (1973)
Since its release, "The Exorcist" seems to have played a very large role in the popular culture. Even 25 years after its original opening, references to projectile vomiting or someone turning their head all the way around immediately recall this movie. So, when I finally sat down to watch this film, I had high expectations. Sadly, these expectations were not met. The effects were very well done, and the movie was quite scary in places (more so than silly slasher flicks like "Friday the 13th", anyway), but the plot and character development left much to be desired. Ellen Burstyn's character, the mother of the possessed girl, is one-dimensional at best, and is frequently very annoying, while Max von Sydow's Father Merrin seems almost totally undeveloped despite spending a fair amount of time on the screen. The only human character with any interesting development at all is Jason Miller's Father Karras. The most important character, though, and the one whose development is perhaps most lacking, is the Devil himself. He possesses this little girl, and does all sorts of disgusting and violent things with her, but his motives in doing so are totally unexplained. In this regard, the climax of the film also seems terribly silly. Frankly, if the sort of stuff shown in this film is the best that the Devil can do, I wouldn't be too terribly scared of him.
Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10), or 2 stars (out of 4)