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Jaime N. Christley
Getting Started (1979)
One of the funniest cartoons I've ever seen
This short animated film deserves a brief comment, but most certainly a complimentary one. The premise (or "plot") involves a concert pianist trying to get ready for a major recital. The pianist is a ridiculous, "cartoon-ish" character, while the room around him is painted like a Monet. The humor of the piece comes from his countless, failed attempts to actually sit down and practice - not due to outside forces, but because of his own procrastination. And when he does sit down to play (and he is capable of playing quite brilliantly, which is shocking, considering how silly he is drawn), he keeps messing up and getting angry.
What I find to be so wonderful, apart from the humor, is the way that "Getting Started" so perfectly portrays procrastination, realistically, and with deft timing. The film is light, meaningless fun, but it is wickedly funny and perfectly constructed. Love it.
Could this be the best film of 2001?
Amazing film. The reviews posted - at the time of this writing - on the IMDb page are sad, because I don't think the writers were ready for what kind of movie it is. (Stephen Holden's pan in the New York Times is especially foolhardy and thoughtless.) It helped to have a little advanced word, in order to brace myself. As it stands, it should have defeated "Dancer in the Dark" at Cannes last year, handily. And if I see a better movie this year, it'll be something for the history books.
It's not for the faint of heart. It's three hours and thirty-seven minutes long, in black and white, and in Japanese. And it's very slow-moving. The cinematography is beautiful, but that may not be enough for folks to hack through nearly four hours.
But the extreme length and slowness is not unjustified. It opens with a horrifying, traumatic event that provides an emotional undercurrent that informs the remainder of the story, in much the same way as "Saving Private Ryan" did (let that not discourage the anti-Spielbergers), and as the film progresses, the event becomes a memory, part of the characters' and ours, too. And the slowness isn't really slowness - it's the playing out of events and interactions as they would happen in real time (the story spans a few months, I believe, perhaps even a year, and maybe more).
"What's the freaking story?" I hear you ask...well, here goes. The opening sequence, which will undoubtedly inspire comparisons and contrasts to "The Sweet Hereafter" (as will the entire film), shows the hijacking of a commuter bus by a businessman pushed over the edge. As the scene unfolds, he has already killed a few passengers, the police are surrounding the bus, and he has used newspapers to block all the windows.
Without revealing too much, the bus driver and two teens - a brother and a sister - survive the incident. The driver (Koji Yakusho, star of "Shall We Dance?" and "The Eel") is shaken deeply, and leaves his brother and parents to wander. The youths' mother runs off with another man, and their father dies soon after in an auto accident - with insurance payments, they can live, but there is no one to watch over them.
I could go into more of the plot - and most critics will, I'm sure - but that isn't really necessary. The key to the movie is that the events seem to be played out as they would in real life, and that the movie camera just "happens to be there" to catch them and tell the story. Sure, this is the goal of all narrative films, but with "Eureka," the process seems to have been reinvented and renewed. The film is longer than most, but not a moment is wasted; it's one of the most efficiently edited movies I've ever seen. Every shot, nuance, glance, spoken word, everything has a reason for being.
There are some who say the movie is too somber, too gloomy. It isn't really. It's somber, sure, but it doesn't strain for it. There is humor - deadpan, mostly - and great joy, too. And if you love great cinema, there is even greater joy!
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
John Wayne as the Swede sailor Ole
It's strange that the best performance John Wayne ever gave on film was one that was not in a western, where he was not in the lead, and where he did not play, essentially, himself. Ask someone what Wayne's best work as an actor was; they look at you strangely, shrug, and walk away. Whenever he tried an accent or a bunch of makeup, he flopped. Here, though, as the Swede sailor Ole, he fits perfectly. His tired face becomes poignant, his tall, forceful presence paints him as a gentle giant, rather than as the salt-of-the-earth cowboy he is best known for.
If the opening shots -- the haunting island music, the wind making everything sway in the night air, the island women flirting with the sailors, the sailors flirting back -- doesn't hook you through the sheer force of ambiance alone, you probably won't like "The Long Voyage Home." If you're expecting an exciting sea adventure with the joe average John Ford job of direction, you'll be disappointed. If you're in the mood for something of a nautical mood piece; the adventures of merchant sailors from bar to bar, the tragedy of being affiliated with the wrong ship, naval warfare in the early twentieth century, etc., check this out.
Within Our Gates (1920)
The earliest surviving film from a black director
"Within Our Gates" is of enormous historical interest as a remnant of a brief period in the early twenties/late teens when there were (due to segregation laws) films made and distributed specifically by and for African-Americans. In this way, it has most deservedly been chosen for placement in the National Film Registry.
By today's standards the film is as silly, half-baked, and paper-thin as something by a high school playwright. The performances are pretty atrocious, but for the most part they are at home with the style of acting that pervaded films of the silent era.
It dealt with provocative issues of the time, such as overt racism, lynching, and the sorry state of education for the black community. Eighty years later we may have done a bit of shoring up, but no one's foolish enough to say that we're doing any better today. One positive thing that can be said is that a film dealing with these subjects today is encouraged, whereas in 1920 "Within Our Gates" was crushed by disapproving educators, legislators, and spineless distributors.
Blade Runner (1982)
Good to look at, not much fun
The staggering cult popularity of this film, even seventeen years after its release, is easy to understand. It's a visual masterpiece, a film with a look all its own (most sci-fi fans prefer this to "Dark City"). It has a plentitude of theological and philosophical subtexts, so fans can wax literate about all the "meaning" that it has. It's "2001" for action fans.
The plot (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want spoilers) goes like this: synthetic people called replicants, stationed on the "off-world," are upset with their second-banana position in society and their limited life spans (apparently they were becoming too human), and rebel. They kill a bunch of their human supervisors -- by the way, all this happens before the story begins -- and head to L.A. to meet their maker (get it?), to ask him to extend their life spans past four years. Rick Deckard (sourpuss Harrison Ford), once a champion hunter of replicants, is called back from his retirement to go out and take them down. Along the way he falls in love with a replicant named Rachel (Sean Young -- one of the rebels? we're never really told), but still pursues his quarry. In the end he kills all but one replicant (Rutger Hauer, who's very good here). That replicant has killed the orignal replicant designer, but saves Deckard's life. After this, he (the replicant) expires and shuts down. Deckard returns to his apartment to see if Rachel is still alive. The ambiguous ending tells us that the couple may or may not be hunted by Gaff (Edward James Olmos, playing the Claude Rains role).
For those who find the Greater Meanings to messy, inconsistent, disorganized and overcooked (like me) can still enjoy those primo visuals, and maybe even the Vangelis score, but they probably won't have much fun otherwise. There isn't much in the way of action sequences, though Ridley Scott does include plenty of shooting, bone breaking, skull crushing and eye gouging, and the story is pretty illogical (part of that can be blamed on the altering of some of Philip K. Dick's original ideas). Even for those people, however, "Blade Runner" definitely remains worth a look.
In God's Hands (1998)
If it weren't for the stunning footage of surfing in this film, it wouldn't even be worth writing about, let alone watching.
The writing, dialogue and story, is so ghastly, it's difficult to tell what Zalman King was thinking. Does he hate the sport? Did he realize that the highly polished, kinetically charged surfing sequences would have made a great documentary, and so he decided to show his contempt for them by slapping on empty-headed melodrama?
In the beginning there's some ludicrous high jinks in some African country (name of the country? I don't know -- New Orleans, I think, or maybe Hong Kong), followed by some scenes aboard a freighter (a freighter with no discernable purpose, manned by a crew of three), followed by a sequence at a surfer training camp (?), followed by scenes wherein one of the main characters gets struck down with a terrible sickness (yellow fever? small pox? heat cramps?), and then gets well. It ends with a bunch of surfing followed by a bunch of surfing.
The dialogue is hollowed-out, cheesy ersatz Kerouac, mostly from a fellow who talks into a tape recorder for some vague future purpose (Dennis Hopper in "The American Friend," anyone?)
On the upshot, if there was money spent on anything for "In God's Hands," it was the film stock and the cameras. Rarely has cinematography been this glisteningly, unabashedly beautiful, without a specific color scheme suited to the story (i.e. war movies, westerns). It rivals anything John Toll achieved in his photography for "The Thin Red Line." In the end, however, this film is reduced to being a ninety-six minute screen saver, and belongs in the same trash bin as Hype Williams' "Belly" and Claude Lelouche's "A Man and a Woman."
The Towering Inferno (1974)
porno for pyros
Reviewers Kael and Maltin got it right: the one thing this movie likes to do best is show us good looking socialites dying in all sorts of gruesome ways. If you don't find it disgusting, you'll be disgusted at yourself for enjoying it -- and if you enjoy it purely (like me), then something's seriously wrong with you (Jennifer Jones falling out of the glass elevator and bouncing off the lower half of the tower is my factorite).
By no means does this add anything to the cinematic medium on an artistic level, "The Towering Inferno" still features high-quality sound and sound editing, special effects, and photography. Some of the stunts are quite thrilling (Paul Newman sliding down a broken staircase rail without falling off is really something), and you as long as you only see this movie once, you probably won't notice how unbearably long it is.
All of Me (1984)
As funny as "Liar, Liar," and without that damn five-year-old
Warning: spoilers within
The premise for "All of Me" is utterly ridiculous, but it's perfectly done. Lily Tomlin plays a proper, prudish rich woman who dies relatively young, and in order to enjoy the active life she never had she arranges to have her soul "transmigrated" into the body of Victoria Tennant. Tennant doesn't mind giving up her mortal coil, because she wants to become one with the universe, though she has a secret agenda that involves the fact that she thinks all the spiritual stuff is hogwash but it'll be worth it to get Tomlin's estate. Lawyer Steve Martin, charged with taking care of Tomlin's legal affairs, accidently gets her soul. They must make a joint effort to operate Martin's body and defeat the evil Tennant character before it's too late. Naturally, trouble ensues and before everything is taken care of, everything gets all crazy and screwy.
The performances are impeccable and very funny; Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin all but match each other for sheer physical, comic audacity (Martin got all the Oscar talk, though, plus every other award in 1984).
The top of the last third drags a bit (a little cutting could've helped), but you probably won't care much, because even then someone has a great line popping up from out of nowhere, or at least a comic spin on an ordinary line. It's great fun, and surprisingly warm-hearted.
Mystery Men (1999)
Deflated, messy, with two or three good laughs
Clever premise, clever jokes. Unfortunately, most of the jokes are more clever than they are funny. You stand around admiring them, but you don't laugh.
Some of the jokes are really, really lame -- that is to say, not clever at all. I defy anyone to find wit in fart humor. Most of the audience just groaned. Or skunk-humping-leg humor. Tee-hee. Farrelly brothers, watch out!
Some of this stuff was good. Most of the good lines were spoken (and probably improvised) by Janeane Garofalo, as The Bowler, though William H. Macy has a few choice zingers. Ben Stiller, Paul Reubens and Hank Azaria try hard, but just don't cut it.
"Mystery Men" belongs in the sub-genre called No Big Stars Special Effects Spectacular that has become so popular in the '90s, along with "Armaggedon," "Jurassic Park," "The Phantom Menace," and "Titanic." Now, if only we can start a genre called Really Good Screenplay Special Effects Spectacular.
Girls Town (1996)
Flat but well acted and thought-provoking
At the center of this largely improvised, sometimes moving, mostly flat cinema verite-style drama about three young women who are dealing with the suicide of one of their friends, there is a mesmerizing performance by 29-year-old Lili Taylor as the Latino, single mother, high school student Patti. I've seen only a few movies with Taylor, "Short Cuts," "Say Anything..." and "Ransom," and in each she was upstaged by actors with more screen time and juicier roles, but I know she's received rave notices for her turns in "Household Saints" and as the "I" in "I Shot Andy Warhol." Here she gives an astonishingly vibrant performance that will have you guessing her age, her ethnicity, and whether or not she's really Lili Taylor. She looks the part with just some rudimentary makeup, yes, and that's nothing to sneeze at, but she also oozes authenticity -- she plays her part better than those other actresses who are just playing themselves.
The rest of the movie has a few moments of truth and also a few choice repeats from High School's Greatest Hits (no small feat either; is the independent market where we must go to find realistic portrayals of public education?), but mostly it features some uninspired improv jobs and a rather sloppy directing job by Jim McKay -- he seems unwilling to exercise any discipline over any of the actors, probably too enamored with the improv style, and as a result the difficulty in framing their more kinetic scenes becomes too much.
Add to this the fact that McKay fails to visibly conclude a story where no real story exists. Malick could end his storyless films properly; Kubrick, too. This is Sundance territory, though, the tightrope upon which films must be made that are daring enough to seem "new," but with enough of a conventional structure to sell tickets. Judging by the rejection of most Sundance releases (with a few notable exceptions) by critics, distributors, and audiences, the festival seems to be hurting itself by playing both sides. So, in a microscopic sense, does "Girls Town."