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Matto regiert (1949)
Unfortunate Metamorphosis of Caligari to Christie
This first scenes of this film suggest that the viewer will be taken somewhere between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It rapidly descends to Agatha Christie territory-flat, uninspired Agatha at that. On the positive side, the acting and score are solid as is the direction, though the film is very `housebound' with all or most of the scenes indoors (with no remarkable sets). The tone of the movie is bland, including a bit of humor, but really needing some suspense or strong sense of paranoia. There is an attempt to portray mental illness as an entity whose grasp reaches further than the inmates in the asylum depicted here, but the mundane nature of the narrative undercuts this ambition. At best 6/10.
Simple Men (1992)
The nudge-nudge, wink-wink school of film-making
The power of the movie camera is its voyeuristic capabilities, peering in at various affairs, public and intimate, of people portrayed by actors. It is undetected by them as they go about their business. Hitchcock brought this metaphor to life in Rear Window as Jimmy Stewart peered into his neighbors' lives with his camera. There is, however, a school of film-making that breaks from this model; let's call it the nudge-nudge, wink-wink school of film-making. In this style the actors are all aware of the camera, behaving not naturally, but rather in a posed way, a way that says, "Look, I'm doing this for you, the viewer." Films in this school often feature stilted dialogue and wooden acting. If this is a style that you enjoy, then Simple Men is for you.
The Day That Aimee Mann Met Charles Fort
Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to Boogie Nights, is not a movie for everyone. If you hope to see the cookie cutter at work, are looking to get the standard type of movie the stays on the tracks of your expectations, this one isn't for you. If, on the other hand you're looking for a movie that takes some risks, is innovative while at the same time resonates with a certain joy that lures us to the movies in the first place, one that might demand that you view it more than once, read on.
Set in contemporary San Fernando Valley, Magnolia cuts and weaves its magic by following the actions of a cast of characters over the course of a day as they attempt to gain control of their lives while, in many cases, struggling with the past; the past, here, often involves the effect parents have on their children's lives as those lives wander, run, or free fall into the future. The boy genius, the ex-boy genius, the game show host, his daughter, the policeman who falls in love with her, the dying man, his wife, his caretaker, and his lost son: these characters might well be figures in a Tarot deck gone wrong--rather than forming a connection to the future, they live in a constant struggle with a past that isn't through with them. Two characters, the police officer and the caretaker are of a somewhat different cut than the others, having made it to the present with gentler souls, still able to give of themselves despite whatever shortcomings they may have. All are played with great energy and verve by a cast that includes many members of the casts of Anderson's two previous films, Hard Eight (aka Sydney) and Boogie Nights.
It is Magnolia's editing that makes this film what it is, allowing it to reach its peaks and giving us a small valley to deal with. On first view, the cuts from scene to scene may leave the viewer breathless; upon a second viewing we can relax a bit and watch carefully how this film moves like a fish darting quickly and gracefully from point to point. It is clear that material from one thread of this three-hour-plus movie unfortunately didn't make it to the finished product. This will happen under the pressure of audiences expecting a pat two hours.
Magnolia is a fitting end to the first century of cinema, a film that evokes a sense of the unexpected, both in the dawning of a new millennium (or millennium to be) and the potential dawning of a new age of cinema. If, a hundred or more years from now, people still ask questions of themselves such as "What and who can I forgive?", "Who can and will help me through life's desolate and forbidding paths?" "Can I possibly plan for the future when the present is so unclear, haunted as it is by the past?" then they will enjoy this movie as we can today as well as appreciate its position in the history of cinema. . . .
Oh yes, Aimee and Charles. She is a singer-songwriter whose songs, heard in nascent form by Anderson, provided the springboard for the characters and their stories. The songs themselves, glistening, Beatlesque pop/rock concertos, are used boldly by Anderson at a number of key points in the film. He was . . . well, some would call him a crackpot, others a prophet of the unexplained. Writing in the first third of the twentieth century, he produced four books of nonfiction detailing reports from around the world of strange phenomena: unusual atmospheric conditions, people with bizarre abilities, animals hailing down from the sky, and so forth. Often, he would present these accounts without attempt at explanation, pushing them out to the audience just so they would see that these things do occur. What sort of a movie results from a director of Anderson's talent making bedfellows of these two? I highly recommend that you go see for yourself.
Shall we dansu? (1996)
It's . . . tedious. (Or, Where's Godzilla when you need him?)
If you look up the definition of "tedious" in The Cinematic Unabridged Dictionary, don't be surprised to find the movie poster for Shall We Dance as part of the entry. This Japanese offering from 1996 revolves around a point of Japanese culture, an aversion--a taboo really--to ballroom dancing. Unfortunately, it is no more interesting than watching a movie where the characters enact a plot in a culture that avoids eating mushrooms, or disdains golf. One character, a bewigged runba dancer tries to save the show by stealing it, but falls short. As this two hour (was it four?) hour production dragged on, the female lead often was seen looking longingly out a window. I hoped beyond hope that she would suddenly look horrified and shout, "Look, it's Godzilla!" No such luck.
Never Let Go (1960)
Peter Sellers in his prime gives an overwhelming performance
Never Let Go, a movie rarely shown in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere), is well worth your time, especially if you are a Peter Sellers fan. The plot is reminiscent of The Bicycle Thief, though this movie will not be confused with Italian Neo-Realism. Under John Guillermin's direction, this drama moves from a nervy look at the underworld to a climax comparable to a western's showdown on a deserted dirt street. Richard Todd plays a cosmetics salesman barely doing well enough to make a living, in part due to his milquetoast-type personality. When his car is stolen, his life takes a serious downturn--he cannot work without it. His quest to get his car back drives the plot till the movie's end. Unlike The Bicycle Thief, however, much of the focus scene-by-scene is on the thief, played here by the late, great Peter Sellers.
Sellers's performance is overwhelming, completely over the top. The best comparison I can make is to Dennis Hopper's memorable performance in Lynch's Blue Velvet. As the movie progresses, his manic behavior becomes infectious: there was a palpable sense of the hysteric in the theater where I saw this movie, the audience just waiting to explode with laughter or shock with each move that Sellers made. This can be see as a distraction, and for a moment here or there it is, but by the end, the performance works very well, making the Todd character's growing determination to reclaim his car a point of tension--it will lead to direct confrontation with a maniac. Inexplicably, there is a sugary last scene tacked on to the end of this film, but it is easily forgiven. Ask your local art film house if it can show this movie--if so, it will be a memorable experience.
Lola rennt (1998)
One Trick Pony
Simply put, Run, Lola, Run is a one trick pony whose one trick is nothing special. A vignette is shot thrice over, each time with plot changes that lead to a different outcome, the three versions run serially with the crowd-pleaser among the three shown last. Much of this film, due to photographic techniques and the inclusion-- for no apparent reason--of animation (where have you gone Mr. Limpet?), gives the movie the feel of a music video. It has been said, I believe, that Run, Lola, Run, is the best action-thriller to emerge from Germany. I can only say, "Keep practicing my friends, keep practicing."
American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty's Bad Breath
In the two weeks or so since I saw a preview of American Beauty, I've been wondering whether I saw the same American Beauty as everyone else. I can say without a doubt that the American Beauty that I saw was an awful movie.
Directed by Sam Mendes, American Beauty details the deterioration of a suburban American family, and focuses on the husband/father's (Kevin Spacey) mid-life crisis, wife/mother's (Annette Bening) infidelity, and Spacey and daughter's (Thora Burch) developing relationship with members of the household next-door. The movie opens with a cause for immediate concern--Spacey's disembodied voice telling us more than we'd ever want to hear from said type of voice, including his apparent knowledge of his fate. Now, voice-over narration is a technique that should almost always be avoided, one used well in very few instances of very few movies. In American Beauty, it is particularly onerous and intrusive, and, given that this is not a supernatural movie, completely inappropriate.
But there is more than this wrong with American Beauty: it's a movie that's never really sure if it wants to be a black comedy, though inroads in that direction fall short in as much as the humor is flat or cliche. Bening's performance is often painful to watch (as she's hamming it up). Worst of all is the extent that Mendes and co. expect us to inherently believe things about this nuclear family, making absolutely *no* effort to suspend our disbelief. The hatred of Spacey's character by both mother and daughter is unsupported: his daughter sites his lust for her friends, but while we see this directed toward one character in the movie there's no reason to believe this has ever happened before (the daughter doesn't speak to another young woman in the course of the whole movie!). Bening's character, oblivious to his wandering lust, is also shown to have strong feelings against him, but the worst he's done is catch her with her lover. Maybe suburbanites just naturally hate dear old dad. The movie even includes a couple of gratuitous topless scenes of the young women in the movie (and I'm no prude), and an utterly fake sex scene between Bening's body double and the lover.
The one bright spot in this movie is the performance of Wes Bentley as the young man next door who sees the beauty in life others do not. Alas, if the movie were about him, or only if his video of a plastic bag swirling in the breeze lasted much, much longer. Make no mistake about it, American Beauty--yes, _that_American Beauty--suffers from a serious case of bad breath.
The Winter Guest (1997)
The Waiting Is the Hardest (and Only) Part
You sit down to watch The Winter Guest. The scene opens. You see Emma Thompson. You start waiting for things to happen, for something to pull you in. You wait, and wait, and wait . . . . Unfortunately, The Winter Guest never does anything. Four story lines about four pairs of characters meander along, never coming together plotwise or themewise. Perhaps the director, Alan Rickman, assumed things would just naturally fall together; however, it takes a guiding hand to make things happen. Nothing ever does in this misguided effort.
The Matrix (1999)
1999's Most Over-hyped Motion Picture
Every year there seems to be at least one movie that has theater-goers buzzing, but which ends up being much ado about nothing. Here's 1999's: The Matrix. Whether it's the hokey idea of robots using humans as batteries rather than harvesting power chemically or geochemically, the dissolution of the trying-to-be-hip science fiction movie plot into a typical action/shoot-'em-up vehicle, or the bedamned Hollywood ending, there's much to annoy the serious film-viewer in The Matrix. Its basic plot (human discovers he's in a faked, alien-generated reality/ discovers he has super-powers to fight aliens) was used in 1998's Dark City, a more stylish film that also suffers from a Hollywood-esque ending. Invest your $7, $8, or $9 in Duracell stock.