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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Print the Myth, 1 June 2005

Hollywood has adapted the history of many other nations to the myth of the U.S.A.'s birth many times (e.g. Braveheart, Ben Hur, any other film where a plucky minority battles for independence from a tyrannical empire), so it's interesting to see a film that goes back to the source. I don't immediately want to turn off any American patriots reading this review, so I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to be critical when I use the word "myth". What I mean is that the American revolution did not begin as a group of U.S. patriots fighting against a tyrannical empire, but rather, as a group of citizens fighting for their rights within an empire. That it turned into a war, and that the war ultimately became a rebellion against an empire (the myth is not a lie, but it is an exaggeration), and that the war then gave birth to the U.S.A. is one of history's happiest series of errors and misfortunes (mostly by the British).

The winners get to write the story of what happened, and in the case of the U.S., the story is written in terms of "freedom". It's one of the most powerful, influential, and for the most part, beneficial stories that the world has ever known. The spread of democracy in the world, emancipation and enfranchisement of millions of people, the development of human rights, the growth of capitalism, with all of the benefits that it has brought (lower infant mortality, greater longevity, higher material standard of living) - all of these things have to greater or lesser extent (often greater) been driven by notions of "freedom" that trace back to the U.S.A.'s nation-building, and to its attempts to live up to the ideals that made the rebellion justifiable - to live up to the myth.

U.S. citizens have lots of reasons to feel pride in their country. But criticising this film, and, for that matter, criticising America doesn't necessarily mean being unpatriotic, or mean that you hate America. The reason that patriotism stirs strong emotions is because where you come from is a big part of making you who you are, your opinions and values. Feeling proud of where you come from therefore makes you feel proud about yourself (by the same token, feeling shame about where you come from, or being told you should, tends to provoke a defensive reaction, as it's similar to being told you should feel shame about yourself. This is a lot of the reason why English people find this film so personally offensive). But if you're going to feel pride in your nation you should do it because there's something to be proud of, not just for the sake of feeling good about yourself.

I think that's the main reaon why the historical misrepresentation of this film annoys people from other countries. As I say, Americans have lots of reasons to feel proud without having to make any more up. The U.S.A. is not a fledgling nation any more - it doesn't really need the myth. Its values have become global, and it doesn't need a story to justify them any more - they stand on their own. It certainly doesn't need to take the truth behind the myth and distort it yet further just to feel good. Feeling proud of yourself because of something that isn't true is self-deceit. Doing it when you're already king is hubris.

I should also point out that pretty much every other country in the world has its own myths and self-deceptions, so this isn't an exclusive attack on America. America just has the biggest film industry...

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
history, 8 November 2000

Most of what can be said about Life of Brian already has been. It's the Pythons' tightest, funniest (all right, so that's subjective) and most thoughtful film. I watched Ben Hur the whole way through for the first time the other day, and the only thing that made it's turgid portents bearable was picturing Charlton Heston asking "what have the Romans ever done for us?" The big irony is that in spite of deliberately placing modern characters and attitudes into a historical setting for the sake of comedy, Life of Brian is in many ways the more historically sensitive film. Ben Hur is typical Hollywood history, turning the Judeans into proto-liberal nationalists on a quest for freedom from oppression every bit as anachronistic and spurious as that of Mel Gibson's William Wallace. At least Braveheart has only the single-whammy of glib, historically insensitive, self-congratulatory, judgemental retrospect. Ben Hur doubles its money by throwing in religious pomposity for that extra emotionally-manipulative kick.

Life of Brian, on the other hand, despite forswearing any pretensions to historical accuracy, comes a lot nearer to providing a balanced historical perspective. What did the Romans ever do for us? Quite a lot, actually. Why are we resisting them? We're not quite sure. OK, so that's not particularly accurate either. The Jewish nation and subsequent diaspora is one of the pivotal test cases in any analysis of the concept of nationalism. Clearly, as the several major revolts demonstrate, there was real opposition to Roman rule, and it was proto-nationalist, insofar as any concepts of nation had by then developed. It's putting the heavily loaded - intrinsically modern - language of freedom into their mouths which is so offensive. It doesn't really need to be pointed out why Hollywood insists on doing this, but I'll do it anyway: it's a cheap way to cash in on the pride that every American is brought up to feel in the wonderful, mysterious accident of 1776. Someone else has already talked about Life of Brian's assault on selective history with regard to religion (still it's most powerful feature - I'm resolutely secular, but the level at which Christianity is ingrained into my culture is so fundamental that to conceive of the real-life figure of Jesus as just another bloke is still shocking). Life of Brian's common sense approach not only attacks this selectivity, it also lampoons retrospective history: the tendency to read one's own beliefs and priorities into people who viewed the world from an utterly different perspective and who, as the LP Hartley cliche has it, "do things differently". The People's Front of Judea are self-evidently ridiculous. But how can anyone have thought that Charlton Heston as Judea Ben Hur wasn't?

"american propaganda"? eh?, 15 October 2000

*** This review may contain spoilers ***


There are plenty of good reasons for people to dislike this movie, and if a movie just doesn't grab you, there's not much that can be said to change your mind. How anyone can accuse this film of being American propaganda, though, is beyond me. Three Kings is unrelenting in its criticism for American policy in the Gulf: that the war was motivated by nothing more than money; that it was conducted with utter disregard for civilian casualties; that the Iraqis were not, as they were portrayed during the war, a bunch of barely human evil towelheads; and above all, that having incited the Iraqis to rebellion, the West promptly left them to be butchered by their own leader. The final scene at the barricade presents the whole war in microcosm: the American army sits by as the Iraqi rebels are rounded up for certain death, watching passively as a humanitarian evil is committed, just as the West did throughout the '80s as Saddam massacred the Kurds and consolidated his police state, supported by the West in the war on Islamic fundamentalism. It's only once there's money at stake that the army changes its position, bribed into a seemingly humanitarian gesture. Some people have accused the film of having a typical sentimental Hollywood ending. I just can't see that... maybe in the little section explaining the respective fates of the three soldiers. Nonetheless, the bleak aftertaste remains that for the vast majority of the Iraqi people, the war (never mind the sanctions) left them infinitely worse off than they had started, and that any claims by the West to the moral high ground are utter hypocrisy.

Three Kings goes a long way towards giving the lie to the sanitised Western view of the computer game war. Every bullet counts, and every death is a real person. Whether you enjoy it or not is more subjective. I thought it was funny, exciting and powerful in equal measure. Basically, a great film, in its own way as unusual and original as either Being John Malkovich or American Beauty, and a damn sight less of an exercise in propaganda than the likes of Saving Private Ryan.

great movie, but not as anti-war as people claim, 20 March 2000

Certainly, SPR is powerful, mind-numbing stuff, but so are most decent war movies if you spend three hours in the cinema. Maybe it was just that the beginning was so hyped that it didn't quite have the impact I was expecting, although a few fantastic moments did stand out (the "lucky guy" who's helmet gets scratched by a bullet, for example). The problem is that for a movie which is so brutally honest in its depiction of the horrors of battle, the film is lazy to the point of dishonesty in so many other areas and insodoing it undermines its credentials as an antiwar film.

To start with a point made in a number of other reviews, the Germans are utterly unsympathetic. The one German we feel sorry for turns out to be a real baddie, eager to kill the heroic Americans as soon as he gets the chance. The result is a movie whose values are completely the wrong way round - the war was rightful insofar as it attempted to check an aggresive and horrifically inhumane regime. It wasn't justified of itself by American patriotism, rather, patriotism provided a powerful rallying point. Yet the Stars and Stripes are far more redolent of America than of liberty itself, in spite of the perceived American monopoly on freedom. By making the Americans heroic and the Germans either faceless or treacherous, by excluding the involvement of Canadian, British and British Imperial troops, and by the emphasis on the worshipful Flag, Spielberg turned the second world war into a matter of Americans vs Germans, American patriotism vs German nationalism, rather than right vs wrong. It was the noblest of sacrifices for these men to die in a country that was halfway round the world from their homes. Many, probably most, fought for their country rather than for France, or Poland or for any ideal of liberty, but if you argue that patriotism actually justified the war, then you're back to "Dulce et decorum est". SPR certainly doesn't make war "dulce", but it comes pretty close to making patriotism "decorum", when this is precisely what many of the vilified Germans were fighting for.

There are other problems with the film, with its story and characterisation. Most, however, are covered in other reviews. One thing, though: the film was much praised because all of the major protagonists are terrified by war. Yet, the same old cliche remains - the weak link in the team who is too scared to fight, but ends up finding his courage (admittedly after one of the most brilliant scenes in any war movie, where the knife fight is happening while the cowardly soldier waits on the stair). It's just a bit disappointing. So many things in SPR are brilliant and uncompromising (like the knife fight, people blowing themselves up with their own mines etc.) that all the cop-outs and compromises are additionally galling. A pity.

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Who says the ending is typical Hollywood?, 20 February 2000

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

[Possible Spoilers]

People say that in order truly to appreciate the great, sweeping, Westerns, you need to be American. Maybe that's why, as a non-American, I like this one so much, for the focus of the film is not Wayne's rugged cowboy, but James Stewart's liberal, modern, lawyer. Much of the ground covered in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had been considered before. The history of the homesetters and the legitimacy of their claims against the men who had originally tamed the area was covered in "Shane", while the arrival of an Eastern softie in the wildman's West was already a well-trodden path (eg "Dallas"), but by trading grand cinematic shot-making for characterisation and personal detail, John Ford went a step beyond those films in terms of even-handedness and depth of understanding. A film like "Shane" provided only clues as to how the West was turned into proper mass-settlement, the message effectively being by a combination of honest toil and honourable violence. On the face of it, "Liberty Valance" had the same combination, but with a new and much more revealing emphasis on the role of legal and political institutions, and, most importantly of all, of railroads. What takes "Liberty Valance" a level beyond, however, is its sense of ambiguity. Which is the more sympathetic - Stewart's noble but naive humanity or Wayne's equally noble (but beautifully unglamourised) hard cynicism? So many aspects of the film represent its uncertainty on this one key point, and almost all resurface in the final scene. If the film has two main aspects in its double-header between Stewart and Wayne, the first concerns their values and the second their relationship with Hallie. In the final scene we see both. We see Stewart's two-fold sense of guilt at having compromised his beliefs and then taken the credit not only for someone else's deed, but for an act to which he is naturally opposed, and we see the sadness and remaining uncertainty in Hallie. The impression remains that she might have made the wrong choice, emphasised by the resignation in Stewart when he asks her about the cactus rose. Throughout the film, although we sympathise with Wayne, it is natural to support Stewart's inadvertent romance - he is more youthful, and can open her eyes in ways which the old cowboy cannot. Yet, at the end, the question remains, was she any happier? Does an honest, real working life, living by the tenets of common sense, offer more than intellectual fulfillment, expanded horizons and being true to abstracts of right and wrong? Did any of the three main characters get it right? All of them end the film less certain, and probably less happy than they were at the outset, but was there anyway for them to have avoided making the choice? "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" gives no definitive answers, but it asks the questions in comprehensive style.

23 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
The best British comedy of the '90s, 8 December 1999

Like Fawlty Towers in the '70s and Blackadder in the '80s, this is British comedy at its very best - a handful of episodes, all of them tighter line-for-line than Alan's shorts ("the boys are back in the barracks"). Partridge may well be the most ingeniously unsympathetic character ever created - every time you start to feel sorry for him, he manages to do something truly unspeakable. Painfully funny.

12 Angry Men (1997) (TV)
yet another comparison with the original, 5 December 1999

It's pretty hard not to be pre-disposed against a remake of such a classic movie as Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men". The recent obsession with taking something which defies improvement, be it an old movie, or (more defensibly, I guess), a foreign language movie and remaking it with lesser stars and a lesser director is always going to be pretty questionable. This one at least goes beyond the at-best workmanlike reinterpretations we're used to. The various actors are all pretty much the equals of their forebears, and provide interesting new insights into the characters and (mostly identical) dialogue. Admittedly, in several cases, they largely repeat the earlier performances - most notably Jack Lemmon, whose eyes, delivery and mannerisms mimic Henry Fonda even down to the additional forehead he's showing. It's pretty understandable, though - the vein of strength, decency and humanity mined by Fonda is perhaps the single most important element in the success of the original. It takes an actor of Lemmon's class to be able to achieve the same quality.

The strongest points about the remake when set against the original are Friedkin's direction - starkly different from Lumet's, although not nearly so ground-breaking - and the Mykelti Williamson character. I'm not really in a position to say whether or not he's stereotyped, but the fact that he does not change his opinion, rather, gives up on the other jurors, is a nice and very plausible touch.

The big problem with the movie, and it's a trap into which many updates are liable to fall, is that the story belongs to the time in which it was conceived. Another reviewer has attacked the plausibility of the jury's attitude to witnesses, and this is part of my point. The original was written at a time when the justice system was far more widely respected than it is now, a time when racism was an institutional phenomenon (incidentally, where were the women in the remake? I guess the title wouldn't really have worked...). Lumet's film caused people gently to question the system in which it was set, while at the same time reaffirming a belief in common humanity. It assumed a certain naivety - people could be coaxed around their prejudice, the justice system worked for the individual (the revelation of the original was that it was possible for it to fail in its duties). It demonstrated that rights needed to be constantly re-affirmed if society is to achieve its potential. Maybe we need the remake to shake us out of our cynicism, to remind us that there is a way that things ought to be. The thing is, we live in an age in which the rights of the individual have been affirmed to their limits, where racism is not a revelation, where the justice system is mired by a workload it can't handle and a population no longer naive to the power of their rights against it, where the crime rate has spiralled, fundamentally altered by the growth of the drugs industry. The reason that the refusal of the Williamson character to change his opinion is so convincing is because modern prejudice is far more used to being argued against than it was in the 1950s. Not wishing to sound too apocalyptic here, but 90s prejudices are rather like 90s bacteria - mutated to be resistant to the antibiotic of liberal rights. The racism of 1957, insidious and unpleasant in its acceptability, was, in the case of the jurors of the original, sufficiently naive that it could be swayed by the power of liberal reason. Modern prejudice is far more adept at distorting the rhetoric of liberal rights to its own ends. If you've never done so, read the Bonfire of the Vanities, and then ask whether or not a New York courthouse could operate like this in the modern era. Whatever your views on his political attitudes (and, for all the cynicism I've shown here, I'm considerably more optimistic), Tom Wolfe's journalism is reliable.

Anyway, for anybody who's still reading, the 12 Angry Men remake is a pretty good movie, almost as good as the original, but without any of the original's relevance, message or plausibility.

How come nobody's mentioned the Usual Suspects?, 28 November 1999

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It just surprised me a bit. The past few years have seen a whole bundle of 'twist' movies (Wild Things, Dead Man's Curve etc) where the final reel reveals new insights into the previous ones, but although none of them are bad movies as such, they've all seemed a bit too self-conscious - twists for the sake of it, rather than in order to genuinely stun the audience. Because you know that nothing is what it seems, you spend the movie trying to guess what the twist will be. The biggest effect it can have on you, therefore, is to mildly surprise you with the way things turned out. The success of the Sixth Sense is, like the Usual Suspects, that it only turns out to have a twist right at the very end. Most people I know who saw the Usual Suspects went to see a heist movie, and thought they'd got one right until the fateful pin-up-board-coffee-cup moment. Similarly, with the Sixth Sense, you get an effective and straightforward spooky movie which suddenly catches you by surprise. The movie has done such an effective job at this that I think it has been somewhat overrated.

First of all, I admit that I knew that a twist of some sort was coming (knowing that, it became quite predictable), which, by what I've said already, means that my appreciation for the movie was dulled because it couldn't completely surprise me. The flipside is that I wasn't so awed by the twist as to be blinded by the movie's faults. It's definitely a good film - maybe an '8', and the acting is superb (especially in the mother-son scene in the car), but it's nowhere near one of the all-time top 100 movies, let alone top 10. Two main points:

1. Once you remove the shock-effect of the twist, it's actually a very meagre tale. As many others have pointed out, the actual resolution of the boy's problem is given far too little weight -the film is unbalanced. Far too much of it is taken up by Bruce finding out what anybody who's seen the trailor already knows, and far too little actually deals with it.

2. If you argue that the twist cannot be removed from the story as a whole - that it is simply too central, then the film must be judged on how well it is integrated into what goes before. The brilliance of the Usual Suspects is that the twist and counter-twists of the ending both explain the previous events better than the previous narrative had. It all makes so much more sense. Although the Sixth Sense is pretty tight (the first encounter between Bruce and the boy makes more sense at the end, for example), there are nonetheless big gaps, like what happened in the time between the opening Donny Wahlberg bit and the "The Next Fall" new scene (sorry, I'm trying really hard not to give away any spoilers). I have bigger objections still, but I don't want to give it all away (a cop-out, I admit).

There are loads of good points about the Sixth Sense (the acting and the elegant direction spring most immediately to mind) which elevate it to the status of a damn good movie, but if you remove the once-only shock of the twist, what you're left with is not enough to make it a classic.

43 out of 49 people found the following review useful:
not just arty twaddle, 23 September 1999

A young artist and his girlfriend run into an aging master who has not painted for many years. It emerges that he stopped in the middle of a painting of his wife which threatened to destroy his marriage. Why this should be so is not at first clear. Over time, however, as the young artist's girlfriend poses for the older artist so that he can finish the painting, it becomes apparent quite how emotionally demanding the artistic process is.

Many people seem to find this film boring or pretentious. It's a matter of taste I guess. I found the long sections of the artist sketching his model extremely compelling. Even if you can't imagine this, give the film a try. I have a friend who hates arty films, particularly if they're in a foreign language. His favourite film is the Rock, yet he started watching this (with the sole aim of seeing Emmanuelle Beart in the buff, which she is for most of the movie) and ended up sitting through the whole four hours. It has a genuinely hypnotic quality.

Aside from the debate about the art sections of the film, its content is superb. The characters are real, interesting and beautifully played. The Beart character in particular is a wonderful depiction of someone who is deeply scarred, but erects a powerful veneer of independence to protect herself. As the artist sketches her from every angle, he gradually gets under her defences, until her entire personality is exposed on canvas. I know this sounds really pretentious, but this film effectively argues that what marks out a masterpiece is that someone's soul - either the artist's or the model's - is put on canvas, and in the process, they and the people close to them are affected irrevocably. Ultimately, the only real flaw in this film is, I'm informed, that the sketches themselves aren't actually that good. If you're like me and have a limited sensitivity to such things, this shouldn't bother you. If not, try not to let it spoil a beautiful, rewarding and profoundly satisfying movie.

30 out of 37 people found the following review useful:
the perfect modern take on a classic idea, 20 September 1999

Aside from freer language and more explicitly sexual humour, When Harry met Sally is a very traditional romantic comedy, very much in the mould established in 1934 by It Happened One Night. Two very different but evenly-matched people are thrown together by circumstance. They are initially hostile to one another, but over the course of the film, this hostility turns to love as their personalities are softened by exposure to their opposites. Indeed, the central traits of Harry and Sally correspond very directly to those of Peter and Ellen in IHON - he worldly-wise and cynical, she spoiled and certain of what's what. Neither of them, it turns out, is as right or as self-confidant as they believe. What's very modern about WHMS is its attitude to long-term relationships. It's no longer enough for the couple simply to fall in love and live happily ever after. They must have a full and real understanding of exactly what, or who, they're letting themselves in for. They must also be sexually compatible (hence the importance of their having slept with one another before they finally get together). Within this framework of traditional romance in an unromantic world, WHMS is almost perfect. Structurally, there are no gaps or implausibilities. Even the central coincidence of these people running into each other under these circumstances is answered. The short but affecting intermissions of successful old couples describing their relationships are not only crucial to the pacing of the film, they also make the point that Harry and Sally are just another couple with an unusual and interesting story. There's an element of luck and coincidence in every successful relationship. The effectiveness of the film's structure is perhaps best highlighted by the soundtrack. There's a perfectly selected Louis Armstrong track for every phase of their relationship - the soundtrack not only complements the mood of the film, it comments on the action. The acting is superb, with the two main protagonists as well as their two foils (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) all giving career-best comic performances. Without such fantastic performances, it's very possible that the film could have failed: these are essentially self-indulgent people, that we sympathise with them and recognise them is in great measure down to the stars. Finally, the script is fantastic. Of course nobody really speaks like that, but like all great scripts it distills emotions and points of view into a few lines. And it's funny. The one-liners are still sharp and amusing on the twentieth viewing, and the set-pieces are beautifully realised (the orgasm scene is only the most famous - check out Harry's olympic sex-dream speech - "Must have been the dismount" - or the "I'm through making a schmuck out of myself" phone call). All this, and a dinner party talking point about male and female relationships. Can we ever be just friends? Not even with an ugly girl? "Nah, you pretty much want to nail them too."

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