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District 9 (2009)
Action movie, video game, yes. Social commentary, not really.
This movie is technically impressive. It has some solid performances. It is not subtle, and it is wildly implausible. I assumed I wasn't getting the whole story from the trailers on how an advanced race capable of intergalactic travel could become refugee camp squatters to a less advanced race. Nope. That's pretty much it. I had a number of "Why?"s floating in my brain afterward, but they were beaten down by the sheer brutality of the film. This is basically a buddy cop film, with as thin a veneer of plot as most of them have. What sets it apart, again, is the technical execution. It looks amazingly real. If only the story and script lived up to it.
John Adams (2008)
I'm clearly in the minority on this, but as much as I wanted to like this series, I just couldn't. It turned me off so much, in fact, I couldn't even finish it. The Adams in the HBO series just isn't the Adams I've come to know in McCullough's book, the Adams/Jefferson letters, and John/Abigail letters. Some of it is there, certainly, but Giamatti's performance is uniformly petulant, irritable, and whiny. I'm reminded of Dorothy Parker's criticism of Katherine Hepburn: "She ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B." Adams certainly could be all three, but was clearly so much morea more vital, gravitational personalityand you'll never see itindeed, get even a glimpse of itin HBO's John Adams. While in an obviously frothier vein, Bill Daniels' forceful portrayal of Adams in the film adaptation of the musical 1776 is far truer to the man described in the book and letters. He, at least, could convincingly be the Adams described by his peers and the match for Abigail, which was never the case for me with Giamatti's shrinking whiner. When he is supposed to be forceful, he merely comes off as a brat. At no point during the HBO series could I bring myself to believe that it was Giamatti's Adams that the other characters were talking about. He simply wasn't believable to me, to the extent that I simply couldn't watch him anymore. I had to retrieve the book and letters from my bookshelf to cleanse my palate and revisit the man of his words.
Which is a criticism I have of the writing itself. Such work in a supposedly epic telling, and yet again I find a much more understandable presentation of Adams in the film 1776 than in four hours (so far) of HBO's production. After four episodes I still couldn't perceive a coherent philosophy, and challenge anyone watching it cold to produce one. The production spent far too much time on the minutiae of moments at the expense of a clear depiction of the man himself. Ultimately it was all about emotionsand again, only a couple of themrather than thoughts. But then this is modern Hollywood's obsessionexcessive but ultimately superficial verisimilitudewhich is why its characterizations pale in comparison to the best of the past.
The same problem extends to the production itself. There is a fanatical attention to detail, including superb visual and special effects, but once again at the expense of the story. Rather than simply putting a camera on an actor and letting him act, Adams' director Tom Hooper, like so many of his peers, feels he must "put us in the moment" with hand-held camera work and oblique camera angles, or create an interesting canvas through off-center compositions and muted colors. All he does instead is distract the viewer and draw attention to himself instead of the characters. Oh but for the chance to lock the present generation of directors in a room playing Ford, Huston, Hawks, and Wyler movies non-stop until they finally learn what they clearly never have about storytelling.
I am happy, actually, that so many have enjoyed this series so much, but it's more than disappointingaggravatingthat the John Adams they're given is such a feral dog compared to the force of nature and penetrating mind, vain, stubborn, and obnoxious as it is, that comes through his letters.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
A strong finish
It's possible this is an 8/10 instead of the 7 I'm giving it, on account of the pitiful presentation of it I just experienced, but I think I'm right on the money.
The movie certainly is right about a lot. Stallone's gift as a writer is his ability to invest story lines that on paper sound implausible with enough realism and humanity to make them plausible, at least to some degree. Rocky 5 finally sounded too gimmicky to me and I never got around to seeing it. Rocky 4, which I did see at least once, stretched the familiar storyline almost too much. This new movie, however, gets it just about right. It's almost as good as the first two, and at least as good as the third. The wisdom and mileage that Stallone has gained, the film gains.
(That's the nutshell. Read farther at your own risk.)
Stallone brings Balboa back down to earth in this one, most notably with Adrian having died. I understand this was not what Talia Shire preferred at first, but Stallone couldn't find the emotional meat he wanted with her in it. I happen to think Talia Shire's instincts were better on that score. Stallone and Shire were so touching together in the first couple of films that this one lacked an emotional center and closure that I missed and would have preferred. I realize Stallone was attempting to create and address a similar hole in Rocky's life. I think from the point of view of concluding a saga, though, he could have achieved much the same end by having her die in the film instead of in the back-story, and allowed audiences to connect with that character, and wonderful love storythis time as an older married coupleone more time before saying goodbye. Rocky got that closure in the back-story of the film; the audience never does. Yeah, I would have like that a lot.
But back to the movie as it actually is. It does succeed in almost all respects. It's realistic about the characters and the circumstances surrounding each of them without being overly maudlin, and Stallone treats the nostalgia with a deft touch. The only thing truly jarring about the film, and which directly detracted from it for me and my wife, is the final fight sequence. All of the previous films, as well as I can remember, used montage sequences to flit through the middle of the fights, but they did so in straightforward fashion, showing clearly a punch here, a punch there, and the psychological war going on between the two men. The rapid cycling and color juxtapositions in this final fight are simply too jarring and hard to follow, and took me completely out of it. The fight would have been much better had Stallone lost the MTV stylingwhich was completely out of place with the rest of the film (and, for that matter, the entire series)and focused more clearly on the arcs happening inside both Balboa and Dixon as the fight progresses. You know, like the older, better films did. As it is, it feels rushed and the impact lost. I was very disappointed with the fight.
But the final moments are nice, with Stallone getting back to the proper rhythm and tone, enough so that the disappointment of the fight is mitigated. If I seem overly critical, it's because of what's invested in the film. I grew up with these films and wanted this one to be great. Stallone had a tall task in front of him in this film, and it's a testament to his instincts that he got so much about it right. The film is a nice conclusion to a beloved seriesand era of film-making, franklyand whatever its faults, just like its hangdog, against-all-odds protagonist, it manages to stir the heart a little and make us feel better for having known it. Nowcue that music.
Charlotte's Web (2006)
The '73 animated version is much better
As with Walden's last adaptation--The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--this is an okay movie that could have been vastly better. It is a superior adaptation to Wardrobe, in that it follows the source material more faithfully both in story and characterization, but it still fails most in those key areas, and in important ways that the animated version didn't.
The most off-putting and probably most egregious error on director Winick's part is to make Fern such an impertinent, downright snotty little girl. In the book Fern is determined, but not rude. Neither is her father the milquetoast that he's made to be in the film. Ditto Templeton the rat, who is turned from an irascible malcontent into an outright bully. Such characterizations are completely unnecessary and in fact detract from the story. (Which again was the core failure with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Seems to be a Walden thing.) This ties into a problem with the casting in general. Julia Roberts was simply the wrong voice for Charlotte. The '73 version had the good grace and foresight to cast Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte. Reynolds' soothing, melodic voice was perfect for a creature meant to be soothing and enchanting. There is life and wonder and hope in it. Roberts' voice is simply too flat and nasally, and becomes actually grating. The casting on the rest of the animals was fine (though the body humor got old after the second "joke"; I long for the days when body "humor" wasn't considered simply part of kids' movie genre), but of the humans only Beau Bridges stands out. I like the actors who played the various parts, but they too come off as lifeless. The whole affair is simply flat, which is ironic considering the wondrousness of the tale attempting to be told.
And then there's the decision to go with hyperrealistic special effects. I found myself wishing they'd stayed with the neat animation that introduced the movie. Instead we're treated to super-macro shots of a spider worthy of an electron microscope. Director Winick should have had the sense to realize that there's no way to make a spider cuddly in close-up. The animated '73 film was wise enough not to try; it showed Charlotte in just enough detail to give her form and features, and left it that. This one, again like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, wants to show off at the expense of the story.
Some of the non-book material is witty, but for the most part it's not and obviously tacked on to tickle kiddies' funny bones. It does, so in that sense I suppose it works, but it's laziness on the part of the filmmakers to feel it's necessary.
In sum, what should be a magical, uplifting movie comes off as flat and, in fact, a little boring. Maybe one of these days the film industry will discover that special effects and high-caliber casts aren't enough to save a lackluster script. It always comes down to the writing, and it simply isn't very good in this version of Charlotte's Web. It has its heart in the right place, and doesn't stray far from the original book in actual plot, for which I have to commend it at least six stars, but it's more interested in being a comedy made for kids than a drama made for smart people, young and old. This is why the '73 version continues to hold my kids in thrall after half a dozen viewings, but they were so bored on a second watching of this new film that they wanted to leave early.
Maybe for Walden the third time will be the charm.
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
The best poorly written sci-fi show on TV
It's an odd place in which my wife and I find ourselves. We're hooked on the show, but why? The characters, all in all, are rather stock and predictable. Ditto the stories and writing, which we've repeatedly predicted as the episodes unfold. This isn't said to pat ourselves on the back, a "Woo-hoo, look how clever we are." No no. It frustrates us, actually. We'd much rather not be able to peg the series as easily as we do, but when the writers consistently take the road most traveled by, stringing clichéd character conflicts and dialogue together to such an excessive degree, it's hard not to be exasperated by it. For all its admittedly excellent production design and decent to good acting, the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica lacks the originality of the average charm bracelet. It seems the creators expended their creativity on the "reimagining" itself. I'm sure legions of fans are spit-taking their coffee right now, so I'll use the episode we watched tonight, "Flight of the Phoenix," as an example.
Okay--we knew that "Sharon" the Cylon was going to save the day. We knew that Adama would be stern and threaten her and still not trust her in the end. We knew that Tigh (Tighe?) would be blustery and ineffective until suddenly becoming sober and professional after his weekly admonishment from Adama. (Which happens only slightly more frequently than his being manipulated by his irritatingly transparent wife.) We knew that Helo would do something to make the card players who gave him short shrift during the poker game respect him by the end of the episodeand that every card player *would be shown* at the end shaking his hand for it. Everything must be spelled out and tied up neatly for us simple viewer folk. And this is our point: That almost without fail, the writers write to the stereotypes. Yes, Starbuck as created goes against type, but she's a cliché of her own rebellious type. Of course she was going to offer to fly the new fighter that the chief was building, because she's the "hot dog" pilot who's not afraid of anything. But boy, we were sure kept in suspense when Apollo couldn't make radio contact with her. It's this cliché-addled story construction and writing that makes it hard to enjoy the show, because the actors have to react in a realistic way to unrealistically contrived situations. Which explains why the only time in the twenty-three episodes I've watched that I've felt the slightest lump in my throat was in the twenty-second episode when the original theme song began playing.
And yet we are hooked, and we do know why: We want to know what happens. The basic premise of the show, as it was with the original series, is interesting enough that it keeps us turning the pages, as it were. The overall quality of the show, particularly this second season, is good enough that we can return to whet our appetite about where the show is going. But, as with George Lucas' latest Star Wars trilogy, we can't escape the feeling of "Oh, the opportunity lost." The actors on Galactica are better than their material. Well, we think; perhaps they're not and we're glad they have what they do, but at this rate we'll never know. This is badly formulaic television at its best. It's a good thing they've got a great hook.
The Family Man (2000)
I'm astonished this movie doesn't have a higher rating than it does. I'm considered pretty fussy when it comes to giving good ratings, but I'm torn between giving this an 8 or a 9. Perhaps it's got a little to do with my low expectations; I passed on it after its lukewarm reviews and watched it only because of my sister's glowing report. Mostly, though, it's because it's an excellent, affecting film. It could have been played strictly as the contrivance it was, written by the numbers, but the writers did their job. They did what Josh Whedon and David E. Kelly do so well, which is find and mine the real human emotions that would occur in an otherwise outlandish situation. Brett Ratner, for his part, managed to elicit just the right notes out of Cage and Leoni (who's never looked more ravishing; my god), two actors who do well on their own, but their best with the right director. This is definitely Leoni's best performance, and one of Cage's. There are a few moments that don't ring quite true, but they stand out precisely for that reason: They're the exception, not the rule. I love being surprised by a movie. This one did it, and is an instant favorite.
Wow (Very minor implied spoiler)
As with many people, my main draw to this film was the acclaim for Charlize Theron's performance. Well, that and the physical transformation. Unlike some, at least, though, that transformation didn't distract me from her performance because both are just so superbly well done. Charlize the model is so completely removed in sight and psyche that I ceased to think about it. I simply watched an amazing and, yes, Oscar-worthy performance. This is a tremendous acting achievement from someone who heretofore had precious little to indicate this level of potential. As I say, wow.
I can understand where some might find Theron's performance a little over the top, but personally I didn't think so. Knowing nothing of the real Aileen Wuornos, it struck me as merely the grandiosity of someone whose self has become so stretched beyond the bounds of normal behavior. I also understand but disagree with the opinion of some that the movie dismisses Wuornos' crimes behind so much PC victimology. The unfortunate truth is that whereas many killers are in fact born with an evil bone (and I'll brook no arguments that they aren't), some are indeed bred to it by circumstance. This doesn't excuse their behavior, it merely explains its source, which is what I believe Monster does very well. I think in the scenes where she does feel pity and shows mercy, the movie illustrates that Aileen does indeed know right from wrong, so that later, when she doesn't show that mercy, it's clear she's consciously chosen the wrong, and for the wrong reasons. I just didn't get from the movie the message that she didn't deserve her punishment.
The only minor negative I found in the movie was Christina Ricci's performance. That's not to say it wasn't good, but it struck me as merely that. In retrospect I think she could have occupied the role better. Though in all fairness to her, it may be only that Charlize is so good, Christina by comparison comes off as merely effective.
This is a difficult movie to watch, no doubt about it. It's one of those I'd usually choose to watch on video at home, due to the almost voyeuristic nature of watching something so intensely personal. But I didn't want to wait to check out Charlize's performance. I'd suggest others do the same. The movie is excellent--literally, directorially, musically--but Charlize Theron is outstanding. Go check her out. If you can find her.
Something's Gotta Give (2003)
Love in the afternoon
A smart and often very funny movie about love on the back nine of life. It's different than the love of youth, and better, I think: The romance is just as sweet, but richer, with a lifetime of experience swirled around in it.
This is a thoughtful and--not a word I'd usually use, but perfect in this case--delightful movie. Jack is indeed his own type, as the movie makes note, which makes this a role seemingly written for him, playing a legendary Lothario forced to consider what he's missed and missing in such a life. A gutsy role for Nicholson, if you think about it, but because he's Jack, you don't. (Well, until later, obviously.)
Diane Keaton's always been a background actress for me, someone who's always done good to great work, but whose films and roles have never resonated in memory for me. This one I'll remember. For me it's her best. Her candor onscreen is so real at times it's startling; she seems less to be acting than being caught on film.
In the supporting roles, Amanda Peet continues to get better--check out Igby Goes Down for more evidence--and, because I'm a guy, prettier as well. The only false note, not surprisingly, is Keanu Reeves, whose casting is an absolute mystery to me. And as a doctor no less; Joey's Drake Remoray on Friends seems more real. I just don't get how with so many actually good (and more handsome, for that matter) actors available--Ted? The fact that he continues to be cast in roles that require him to emote just further convinces me he's a modern Rasputin.
It's a small price to pay, though. This one's worth evening price. It's as close to genuine as today's Hollywood gets. You'll feel better for it, and actually wish you could be older and in love.
Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)
Good, but could have been great
Nicely done, but no shock and awe here. I can't give it more than a 7 out of 10 for Paxton's progressively more melodramatic narration and Cameron's too-heavy reliance on the computer gimmickry, but neither hurt it so much as to take away the effect of seeing Titanic up close and personal. My only other complaint was that Cameron somehow managed not to take full advantage of the IMAX-sized screen. I kept waiting for some soaring shots of the various sides and parts of the boat, but it seemed like he always had the camera right up against them where you couldn't get a full measure. I kept thinking, "Dammit, man, back up." And the CG overlays really did start to irritate me a bit. I wanted to see the boat, but often as soon as the CG effects wisped away, it cut to something else. Overall I guess I thought it a little too cluttered technically and not enough lingering over the human touches.
As for the 3D, I thought it did increase the impact some, more than being a mere novelty, but I agree with Roger Ebert that Ghosts would have been a perfect showcase for Maxivision 48. Someday maybe true film fans will unite....
The Man from Snowy River (1982)
Still my favorite
Shawshank is superb. Roman Holiday is perfect. Raiders is a blast. But The Man from Snowy River has been, is, and always will be my favorite movie. Some movies just match your personality more than others, trumping any technical deficiencies they may have. No, Snowy River doesn't have the best acting, the best screenplay, the best direction. But in all of them it's great, and the combination of the story, the cast, the scenery, and music (Bruce Rowland deserved an Oscar for his score) is much greater than the sum of its parts. For me, it's everything a movie ought to be: uplifting, heartwarming, optimistic, romantic, adventurous. It swept me away when I was 13 and its magic hasn't dimmed at 34. What a wonderful movie.