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overlong, stuffed the gills, occasionally truly, unabashedly great, 21 December 2014

Originally Guillermo del Toro was supposed to direct the Hobbit series. Whether he had two or three films at the time he was in pre-production is uncertain, but he still retains a co-writing credit on the scripts. His presence, I think, can be most felt in this film, An Unexpected Journey, which also takes the most from JRR Tolkien's original book of the title. His sense of grandeur and love for creatures - unique, big, small, darker and more disgusting and 'out-there', the better, which I'm sure jived with Peter Jackson's tastes - is there big and large here, and it helps in moments... and perhaps detracts in others when things go on, and on, and on.

Now that the trilogy is complete, I can look back on this first film and see that there was actually a lot that was good about it, at least in the sense of kicking off this new series of films starring that Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, arguably the reason if nothing else to see the movie as it's a tremendous performance for all of the little moments and gestures he gets right). Bilbo is a stubborn little guy, though not as much as the dwarfs who crash his house to eat and inform him - via Gandalf the Grey and Thorin Oakenshield, a son of a departed king - that he is to go on a journey to help them get back their gold and kingdom from a diabolical dragon named Smaug.

Of course, this was originally a children's book - not three separate ones like LOTR, just one, and the first version was not as complex as it later became with rewrites and reissues - and here it gets puffed up to unimaginable heights. Though shortened and imperfect, a 1977 animated film got the whole story in under 90 minutes. Ironic that Jackson's 'Rings' series was the best criticism of the Bakshi adaptation, where now it's reversed. His film is loaded with action and adventure, some of it well choreographed, scary, exciting, deranged, and just... long. And, as with a lot of franchises (including Star Wars) things have to tie together, even if inorganically. Hence you get appearances from Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett (albeit as actors they're never unwelcome, just sad it's this dragging material) as characters not in the book, only to serve as connecting tissue for the "Larger" threat that is really in the background of a tale of a little hobbit and the dwarfs.

The film is the definition of hit or miss, and when it misses, such as an overbearing climax that just feels too BIG for its britches, giving a massive dose of epic battle to something that isn't that big, it's a lot to bear. But when it hits, I hasten to say it was almost (not quite, but almost) worth it for Jackson to come back to this series. The highlight above all else is Bilbo's 'Riddles in the Dark' with Gollum. Though the visual effects were astonishing and groundbreaking with him years ago, here they've gotten *better* and, in just once scene, we get so much from this character all over again - a showstopper, naturally for Andy Serkis in the best possible way, playing it for comedy, tragedy, horror, everything you dig about this character - that it's a reminder how much character is paramount in these types of films. You can have all the sweeping shots of New Zealand and characters running this way and that and CGI monsters and peril... but two people having a conflict over a piece of gold is much, much more intriguing.

Indeed that one scene is a 10/10. But there's too much 'filler', so to speak, scenes that drag and characters who either have too much backstory (Thorin, the a-hole of the series and the kind of co-protagonist with Bilbo) or not enough. I enjoyed Unexpected Journey, maybe, just barely, the most out of all these new releases. But the lack of a consistent tone - some things played for much broader comedy than anything in Lord of the Rings, some things so dark that they nearly become comical, and action that feels like it's still going even after the movie ends - I don't know. It's a film where you can feel brilliance and mediocrity fighting one another.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
adequate but dull, punctured by heart and awe, 21 December 2014

Peter Jackson loves his excess. The man can't get enough - as not even a storyteller but as a spectacle-producer, a showman, he is like a starving kid at a Thanksgiving day buffet. This series is an indication of that, even if it's not all of his fault (it was originally two movies, maybe too much enough, until the Tolkien estate said it needed to be three movies - the studios, I'm sure, concurred). He and his team take what is essentially a children's book (The Hobbit, that is, which Tolkien wrote for his children initially years before LOTR) and make it into a 474 minute trilogy (credit time included), which means that a character like Bilbo Baggins, the little Hobbit-that-could who finds that he can be courageous and has the 'Right Stuff' as it were on an adventure, is a bit diminished in the epic scope and grandeur of what is really, in this case, about the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield and his quest to retake the castle of his father from the dragon, Smaug.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up as a cliffhanger from the previous film - a rather uber-dramatic one at that - with Smaug getting out of the castle and set to attack a town. He does, people die and try to escape, and one man (Luke Evans, one of the more sturdier heroes of the series) fires an arrow that somehow gets through and kills the beast. One may scoff at how the dragon is so easily destroyed after such a build up at the end of 'Desolation' (and that whole set piece, by the way, was one of the highlights of this trilogy). But this is merely the set up, as it was, up to a point, in the book: armies are converging to get that treasure in the castle/mountain, and Thorin won't give it up. So, thus, we get war. Lots of it. Like, most of the film.

Thorin is an interesting character in that he is mostly defined by one trait here - until the script requires him to suddenly 'grow a pair' and lead his dwarfs out into battle with the rest of them - which is being a stubborn a-hole. Of course this can be chalked up to the 'dragon sickness', which could make him a victim in a sense. But Thorin throws this off so quickly and gets back into 'hero' mode that we're basically made to think that he can be sort of forgiven for being a stubborn a-hole for most of these films, this one most of all. And it's not that characters don't acknowledge it around him or call him out for it, far from it. But being that Thorin is more of the protagonist than Bilbo really is - or, if you must insist, co-protagonists - there isn't much to latch on to there.

Not that Jackson and company don't have other story threads to go on, one of those carried over from the last film involving the romance between a dwarf and an elf (the latter played by Evangeline Lilly, who just has those eyes that make her a good actress, even when she's tasked to play soppy melodrama). I had forgotten how strongly these two felt for each other - or how much of a sandwiched-in sub-plot it was (not in the book, but why carp at this point) - so when they have to face their struggles here in battle, I only felt a modicum of emotion for them to get back together or say 'f-you' to the haters of the other dwarfs and/or the elves (i.e. stone-faced Lee Pace).

Or maybe it was effective and I just didn't feel it, it may just be all on me for not really getting into this one, and certainly not as much as the previous two films (and those weren't much either). In 'Journey' and 'Smaug' at least I had a major set piece to hang on to - and the ones with Gollum and Smaug respectively are some of the great pieces of cinema in this whole Tolkien six-film run, to give Jackson/Cumberbatch/Serkis etc credit here. Is there one here? I'm not sure there is, despite the attack on the opening carrying over from the last film. That's merely the appetizer for the glut of CGI action that takes up MOST of the film here. And that would be fine... if it wasn't monotonous.

And perhaps it's also on me to get in or not get into this action. But at a certain point, how many times can you see an orc trying to kill someone and it doesn't carry the simplistic weight of a video game. And this isn't even to knock video games, except to say that this is a typical, adequate, mostly well-put-together but still kind of soulless video game. Jackson puts in some of the bigger orcs with features that look cool, or a moment like Legolas jumping up stairs that are crumbling under him that are just funny (intentionally or not), and yet it's all just SO much and little of it sticks.

The good news is there's a bit more Bilbo in the film, which gives more time to Martin Freeman who has nailed this character every step of the way and made him a joy to watch. He even makes latter-film scenes with Thorin count, at a point where I thought I didn't have much care for the character (not that Armitage doesn't try, but he's just... okay I guess). Overall, Battle of the Five Armies delivers TONS of effects, TONS of epic, sweeping shots of New Zealand (duh), TONS declarative moments and moments of humor that are hit or miss - and the always dependable likes of McKellan and Blanchett and so on. I just wish it left me with something more than feeling dulled by much of it.

Top Five (2014)
7 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
being funny vs having a great story to tell, 14 December 2014

There's a scene in this film, Chris Rock's latest as auteur and star, where he performs in a comedy club. It's the first time in years his character, Andre Allen, has performed and from a story point of view it seems rushed and contrived. How he gets to this point isn't exactly organic to what's been going on just before, and only makes sense in the sense that the script dictates it's here that he gets, for lack of a better phrase, his 'groove' back on stage. Nevermind that the character hasn't performed in so long - albeit some of the material, to be fair, ties back in with some troubles he's having with his fiancé, so that's fine - he kills and everyone loves it. Why do they love it really? Well, this is where it gets tricky, and why I recommend Top Five: it's funny. And Chris Rock's funny. He's a great stand up. He doesn't transcend his own problematic script, but he and the cast do much better than it could've been.

The basic premise has more than a touch of Stardust Memories - in case you can't tell, which is possible, Woody Allen is one of Rock's heroes - as Allen doesn't want to do funny movies anymore (he's been "Hammy the Bear" for three films, making this kind of a double-bill/companion piece for this year's Birdman), and has a new, serious work where he plays a Haitian white-man-killing revolutionary. He's spending this one day going around New York city, promoting the film, visiting his family, doing this and that, and he's tagged along by a journalist (Rosario Dawson, who is terrific here by the way), who wants a personal-profile scoop. He's not having it, at first, but over the course of a day and night and lots of memories of things gone wrong - he was/is an alcoholic, as she is, conveniently enough - he opens up.

Again, not a strong story entirely, though it has its moments. Really, it's actually the moments that Rock wins best at here: when he goes to visit his family (first his father, who seems to be kind of a bum but it's funny/sad seeing Allen have to haggle with him over money) and how they all rag on him, and he rags on them back, you can see the warmth and improvisation going on (how much is scripted is anyone's guess, but the tone is just right and the jokes all work in this piece). His set pieces, mostly in the flashbacks, keep bringing the comedy forward and he has many, many funny lines, but even funnier situations for his actors. Cedric the Entertainer especially steals his scenes, but the same can go for Kevin Hart, JB Smoove (to an extent, though he has really one shtick), and even Brian Regan in an uncredited cameo. And DMX... Jesus.

A lot of the film also hinges on Rock and Dawson, and despite a third act reveal (is it a twist?) that made me roll my eyes, their chemistry really sells much of the film. He has just great dialog for the two of them to play off one another, so that we can still buy *them* even if not always the story or situations that develop.

And, again it must be stressed, the movie is funny. Sometimes it's very funny - I'd be remiss to forget that Seinfeld and Adam Sandler show up at a bachelor party and had me crying laughing - and that helps it make it just an unabashed crowd-pleaser first, cutting satire second, which I think was really Rock's goal here. Whether he was trying to also make a GREAT film, I don't know. At its very best, it does come closer than any Rock film to show the sorts of topics he does in his stand up brought to a dramatic context, like the whole marriage-TV-show sub-plot with Gabrielle Union (who is also fantastic here).

But hey, for a night out - as a date-night movie it's especially adept - it works, and it'll get you thinking about your own Top Five after a while. Or if you'd ever see Rock play a Bear-cop (obviously a play on Martin Lawrence more than himself, though ironically Rock wrote the script while on set for Grown-Ups 2, so it goes).

a lot of fun, even if it's not particularly 'great' film-noir, 12 December 2014

I have to wonder if Raymond Chandler really had a passion for this project - perhaps he did, it was the only original screenplay he wrote, by himself, in the years he wrote for Hollywood features - or if it was just a project to quickly dash off to make some cash. It's not that he doesn't put his all in it as far as his dialog goes, which, if you watch films like Double Indemnity (albeit with Wilder and adapting Cain) or The Big Sleep (which really does retain a lot of his dialog if not all the plot), this does have the same cadences and cynical, witty banter with characters. It's a hardcore pulp noir involving a man who is wrongfully accused of killing his wife after coming home from the war - part of the motive may be, people suspect, that he was despondent over her drunk-driving killing their child - though we know he didn't do it as he has an alibi that sticks.

What makes me question it is that, you know, we've seen this sort of thing before with the man wrongfully accused - hell, it was Hitchcock's stock and trade for many years. What also seems kind of confused and, though well-intentioned, dated, is the depiction of shell-shock (or PTSD for the modern crowd) with the character of Buzz (William Bendix). This is a fascinating supporting character in the way that he has no other real purpose in the film - albeit he does work himself into the plot by a certain point, to be sure - except as a kind of irritated Id, a man who freaks out whenever he hears music due to the metal plate in his head from the war. There's not a shred of depth to him, and yet he's both an inspired creation and something that feels totally dead-weight, a one-dimensional being, doing the same thing scene after scene like a big lummox of a child.

But maybe it's some of the other characters that feel stock... no, they're finely drawn enough, those criminals and gangsters that take up the space in the office of the Blue Dahlia night-club, or some of the others that tail Alan Ladd's character. Maybe it's Ladd himself and how he's directed that doesn't quite work, as he is just kind of a bland presence here - more in appearance perhaps than his voice - and Lake is similar, though she brings a little more emotion to it in scene to scene reacting to things and being the not-really-femme-fatale of the story (no, that would maybe be more-so the wife). Not that Doris Dowling does better when it comes time for her to emote about the Tragedy of Little Dickie.

I criticize all this mainly because it should have been tremendous stuff, and... it's not. But director George Marshall, under John Houseman's production, and featuring an awesome supporting turn for Howard DaSilva as Eddie Harwood (if that indeed is his name!) there's enough here that works and makes for a very fun viewing. Sometimes just letting the actors take the entertaining aspects of Chandler's text - which also includes some bloody fight scenes with Ladd and some baddies in the third act - is enough to make me keep watching. It's still a cinematic world fused into film noir, and LA noir at that; the third act set at the house in the dark is moody in just the right atmosphere. And though everything gets wrapped up a little too quick - seriously, it made the audience I was with laugh out loud so to speak - the plot is fairly air-tight for what Chandler is working with, which involves the procedural stuff, false flags, and revelations that ultimately are about showing the two leads together in fine style.

Actually, for Ladd and Lake, there is one very good scene here, where the two are in the car at night and trying to come up with the name from the initials J.M. A scene like that, somehow, the actors come off more relaxed, get into the script fully, and the direction is nice too. Maybe a little more of that and less formula. But, again, it's still good, really good, and a cut above other film noirs just by Chandler being a natural g-damn writer for men in coats with guns and dames with ulterior motives (and big lunk-heads who may or may not know any better)

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The Aardvark and the Gorilla, 10 December 2014

It's interesting - and maybe a little TOO in-depth, just perhaps - looking at the message board for this movie on IMDb. There's all sorts of theories that are flying about this way and that, what this means, who did what to whom, is there any meaning in an 'Oragnutang', things like that. What the filmmaker Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader have done is create a work that can bring a lot of different interpretations, that's what's so spectacular bout it. It's a relationship comedy-drama, but it has the structure of something like a Luis Bunuel movie (Exterminating Angel) - a couple comes to a retreat to try to work out their issues and deal with past pain, in part from Ethan, thanks to the advice of a therapist - how they came to him is a bigger question never addressed, but whatever), and whenever they go into a guest house one of them meets a 'version' of the significant other who is, in their own certain way, perfect. Or ideal, or something that makes them... happy, I suppose.

The One I Love has only two characters, though one could/should say there are four. However you want to look at what's happening here - a science fiction experiment, a mind-control device, brain manipulation, or just a simple narrative trick that one would probably never question if it were in a novel instead of a movie - as far as the character dynamics go. It's an endlessly clever but emotionally involving story of mind-games; are Ethan and Sophie, the new ones, really ALL good for the 'real' Ethan and Sophie? How do they know all of these things about one another? Perhaps they're projections or part of the subconscious mind. No matter. What matters is how the characters go from scene to scene, being happier - or not, as happens to Ethan - and the ups and downs when, finally, the 'New' Ethan and Sophie reveal themselves without tricks to the 'Real' Ethan and Sophie as... Ethan and Sophie you guys!

There is confusing stuff here. I thought I could watch the movie sort of half-asleep, and not only did that not work, the movie really kicked my head up into gear to get into the mix of it. I also thought it being Mark Duplass - he serves too as producer with brother Jay - it would be quite funny, but less... heady, perhaps? What really cements the film is that whether it's Real or Not-Real Ethan, or Real or Not-Real Sophie, Duplass and especially Elizabeth Moss make them funny, awkward, sad, angry, sensual, crazy, scared, weird and angry again all in natural measure. The wonderful thing about most of the film, until a certain point perhaps (though it's gradual, not a sudden turn for the worse or anything), it's organically developing. When the characters enter their 'fantasy' space - and like Bunuel they can't seem to get out when they may want to the most - they may be changing for the better... or worse.

So for all of the gimmicks of the story it has to work with the characters and the actors, whether one is 'real' one scene and then 'fake' the next, and who can tell outside of the glasses (hey, he's like Clark Kent, non?) The movie works best, and is riveting in a kind of harrowingly comic way, when the husband and wife are getting used to what they see as a "safe' environment to play out their other's better qualities, as if it's a 'tag-you're-it' thing, and we get to see how one views the other and one tries to be more or less comfortable. In other words, it's just a lot of fun outside of the obvious psychological implications. Where it gets a bit fuzzy is when the 'plot' kind of kicks in a bit more, or it felt that way for me, in the third act when the 'Fakes' and their actual origins are revealed (more or less, some of it remains obscure, which is maybe for the best for the sake of the sanity of the piece), and it kind of falls apart.

And yet, the end scene brought me back again, so it's a strange thing. The whole movie features two actors, both with magnetic, awesome chemistry, getting to play a wide swath of emotions, albeit in how the particular 'version' goes from moment to moment (not unlike earlier this year with Eisenberg in The Double). It's a surreal farce that resonates because it asks what a lot of the great movies about marriage ask: who is this person I am with, and can I continue to be with them the same way? For a while, it's one of those marvelous, original comedies of the past few years, and should be seen on VoD. 8.5/10

nothing short of fascinating, 10 December 2014

The only downside I could put to William Friedkin when it comes to this documentary/interview he conducted in 1974 with Fritz Lang - director of such films as M, Metropolis and The Big Heat - is that he starts off his film with asking a question that would bring the best/most dramatic story. This, of course, was Lang's encounter with Joseph Goebbles in 1933, right at the dawn of the Third Reich, and how he was approached and offered a post as the head of propaganda filmmaking (the Nazis were impressed by M and to an extent The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, despite, as Lang points out, a direct criticism of Nazi ideology in the film - later the film was suppressed). Lang, not wanting to hide anything at this point, mentioned there was some Jewish blood in his background, though he was not full-on Jewish. As Goebbles said to him, "We decide who is and who isn't Aryan." And at that, he decided to flee the country, which was not too easy to accomplish.

This is the first tale that Lang tells, and it's a riveting one, even with some of his pauses and deliberate way of taking his time speaking (he's not a Scorsese, to be sure). From here Friedkin goes into more of the standard-type of questions, like 'how did you decide to become a filmmaker?' 'What were the 1920's like and did they influence your work?' Things like that which takes Lang into telling more about how he came about to film - we learn, for example, he didn't see his first motion picture until 1917, not too soon before he began making films, almost by luck - and how he approached doing films in his way, in a 'sleepwalking state' of confidence.

There's so much good stuff here to discover and Friedkin is a decent interviewer. I hesitate to say great - he sometimes asks the kind of questions that reminded me of Bogdanovich in 'Directed by John Ford', sometimes questions that should be a little obvious, though Lang is a better/easier sit than Ford was to be sure. But he keeps it moving along and we discover about process and history, and even if Lang doesn't always acknowledge it that there was a link in those early, tremendous silent epics he made. One other downside - though it can't be helped due when it was filmed - is that because of just the nature of filming at the time (this was on *film* mind you, not video- tape), the reels have to change every ten minutes. We see just a little of the friction in-between shots as the director tries to calm down the set and keep things going along. Thankfully, that's not really the focus here.

For fans of Lang it's really worth something; you don't really get anything out of Friedkin, though that's not the idea (it's not a Hitchcock/Truffaut situation either). It's long, in-depth, and worth the while for any hardcore cineaste.

Foxcatcher (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
an eerie drama about weird obsession and the "American dream", 7 December 2014

For a lot of people, but especially athletes, we're told that going for a respective native country is a very admirable, noble, Go-For-It aim. And for Americans, it's the ultimate sort of hope, at least in conventional terms - being the "Best" and representing the country in places like, say, the Olympics. This is what John Du Pont (a mostly unrecognizable Steve Carrell) tells to the young, impressionable Olympic gold medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, recognizable as can be), that his ambitions should be directed to get the gold - again - for America, as it is. Schultz is impressed by Du Pont, if nothing else by the attention of someone who is, as Mark sees, a super wealthy man (one of the biggest wealth-areas in the country), and wants to join him in his quest for Olympic glory in 1988 along with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) who is not quite as enthusiastic, mostly due to his family/current work commitments. No matter, Mark will do it for John, this will work... for a little while...

Foxcatcher is a helluva piece of work, mostly in how director Bennett Miller stages his scenes and lets them unfold with his cast. This isn't a film with urgent line-a-minute drama. On the contrary this moves more like a slow-burn dramatic film from the 70's (think, I don't know, Fat City or something in terms of tone), and he spends a lot of time just watching his actors move around settings, looking at objects and pictures in the Du Pont home, the horses in the barns and fields, the wrestlers moving their bodies this way and that (like apes at times, even the brothers, which makes Du Pont's comment at one cruel moment - "You ungrateful ape" - to a character all the more brutal and spot-on). There's a lot of watching and waiting, and all the time, surrounded by stuffed birds, desperate, lonely men, and eerie, weird vibes, it makes for a film that us uncompromising.

All three lead actors pull in solid work here. Tatum has been getting amazing notices from critics across the board, and this is his best work as a dramatic actor (personally I still prefer his comedic work or Magic Mike, but that's neither here nor there), in large part because he is there to react and listen. He doesn't have to emote in LOUD ways, if that makes sense. His most intense scene is in a hotel room and is mostly in shadows, so it's really about the internal space this character inhabits. And it's a compelling, interesting one: here is a man who is an Olympic champion, yet without this opportunity from Du Pont he would be still eating Ramen noodles and few prospects. Tatum goes for this uncertainty, then certainty, then going-off-the-rails, and then doom and gloom, with a quiet quality that comes through extremely well.

Ruffalo has an easier role to play - the more "normal" character here, who has his most pressing conflicts when dealing with his younger brother, or having to basically lie to a camera crew doing a propaganda documentary on Du Pont as a wrestling coach - but still is fascinating to watch for how much emotion he puts into a 'straight' man in awkward or tense moments like those wrestling matches or the prep. He may be underrated come awards time when Tatum and Carrell get the bulk of the limelight, but he is no slouch here in the slightest.

And Carrell. Jesus. In a way there can be a big criticism of his performance, or maybe it's just down to how the writers present him (one of them from Miller's Capote, the other from Something Wild), that he's one-dimensional, or not that 'deep' exactly in his enclosed, rich weirdo. He really doesn't 'change' so much during the film. Things happen around him and he is not the most predictable Character (with a capital C) as he may be benevolent one moment, and slap your face the next or get mad you didn't put the 50-caliber machine gun on the tank (yep, that happens, that's how wealthy the Du Ponts were), but he is pretty much the same sort of "off" kind of crazy from start to finish. It's just that by the end, his crazy finally comes un-spooled, whereas before it's more about the package of this man. (What's the line in the movie Speed? 'Poor people are crazy, I'm eccentric.')

But all the same, Carrell inhabits this guy, and makes his loneliness and (maybe) latent homosexuality or whatever it is about him that gets him engaged about wrestling to a fullness. I felt repulsed, intrigued, confused, scared by this guy, who lurks around his mansion and comes to these wrestling practices - and at one point wrestles himself, albeit in a fixed match which he may or may not know about - like a vampire. Indeed how Schultz comes to this man's premises, becomes ingratiated, it's only a wonder the man doesn't get more people under his wing. Actually he does, under the guise of still having a lot of wealth and being able to do whatever he wants. If we ask an actor in such a quietly towering role to just be truthful to being a freak, Carrell is Freak of the Year.

Foxcatcher at times may be a little long, or a little ambling in its pacing, but it all builds up. By the time it comes to that climax, it's shocking not so much for what it is but how inevitable and, maybe, preventable it could have been. The stakes in this movie are about mental wellness, attraction, and being enveloped in guises and dreams for something 'more'. It's presented like an All-American nightmare; one wonders if this is on a double-bill with the recent Nightcrawler if some would want to just give up on the promises for a better society.

3 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
follows the book quite well - if you liked that, you'll like this, or..., 7 December 2014

... If you haven't read the book, but keep up with the series, Mockingjay part 1 - the first half of an adaptation of the third book in the Hunger Games series - it still works. Or it did for me. One of the main things is that it takes its story from the book, and it gives some time to breath for the characters. You get to see how this develops - how Katniss is poised to become this symbol/figure of the revolution for all the other districts, how she's molded (at first unsuccessfully, then majorly) as a figure for the people through what is another "reality" show, only this time more on the side of propaganda - and you don't have to rush through it, it's laid out piece by piece, you get a sense of this District 13, the other districts rebellions, and so on.

So, first things first, it's its own movie. It's not simply easily dismissible as a 'it's only HALF a movie' sort of thing. Also, the acting is still top-notch for what this material asks for. Lawrence is still incredible as Katniss, having to express more the PTSD that her character has by this point going through two hunger games; Hoffman, in one of his last performances (part 2 of Mockingjay will be the last) strikes a jolly-calm-stern balance throughout his work here as the progandist; newcomer Julianne Moore maybe has the toughest role to play - and she is a lot colder in the book for those who have read it and know - but carries herself strongly in her scenes, aided by gray hair; more surprising is Liam Hemsworth, who I thought was weaker in the previous films, kind of like window dressing. Here, he has to if not carry scenes be more of a firmer presence, like when they return to District 12, or scenes between him and Katniss. He's gotten better.

What I liked here is the mix of the 'Media Image', on both the sides of District 13 and the malevolent President Snow with his interviews staged with prisoner Peeta (some of the make-up as he gets weaker is a bit cheesy), and how this is set in the backdrop of this revolution. How much people want change? Well, enough to storm a dam or fight back by going high into trees for a couple of things (these are things we at best hear about in the book but don't see, one benefit of film vs the book in terms of point of view). But best of all I like how director Lawrence paints a relentlessly grim picture, and it's never entirely dour. Nor does it have to be super action-packed; this might deter some audiences who just want the blood and carnage of the Games of the previous films. And to be fair Catching Fire did improve upon it.

But unlike something, say, Harry Potter 7 part 1, there's not a lot of aimless wandering around or pondering. Things keep moving, the story keeps going, Katniss' progression as a kind of 'icon' that she naturally becomes through her anger and persistence (and of her handlers), not to mention the bit-by-bit rising of the other districts, it makes for a dynamic film that is really about politics as much as anything else. So that by the time Snow and Katniss have their brief face-off through a video screen, the intensity is white-hot. This is a smart, brawny blockbuster that is not exactly, you know, a ball of laughs, but for what it presents as another in a line of thrillers, it's different and has enough of a satiric edge amid its epic qualities to make it stand out from, say, the Divergent series.

"I am Dr. Mabuse", 5 December 2014

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is something that one might not expect in the catalog of work by the towering figure in German cinema, Fritz Lang. The film is, actually, a sequel. Or, correctly, the second part of what is in retrospect a trilogy (it ended with 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which ended up being the director's final film). It concerns the title character, who in the first film - arguably the first 'crime epic' as at four and a half hours - chronicles in expert detail how a madman takes over a German city with his hypnotic powers of criminal influence.

That film as well as this sound-era follow-up, the latter of which got banned by Goebbles for supposed influence on the public (and no wonder with its 'Mystery Voice' of influence, but more on that in a minute), are not exactly "high art." On the contrary, I think Lang would readily admit these are popular works of art, inspired initially by a pulp serial. Indeed watching this film in particular I can't help but think with its swath of criminals under a madman's "testament" and spell (particularly after his demise) and police force inching closer and closer to discovering the secrets of this man's plan, that all it's really missing is Batman. Matter of fact, it wouldn't surprise me a bit to discover that, one way or another, Bob Kane or Bill Finger didn't watch this (or the original bad-ass 1922 epic feature) to inspire Gotham just a bit.

In this world, people are desperate. It's hard not to see it as Lang shows a flashback of one of the employment-desperate criminals, who has one little spot of hope with a woman who loves him practically unconditionally (or maybe she's one of those 'I can change this Bad Boy' types, but I digress). These were tough times, and people might just decide to turn to crime as those jobs weren't available - or, as Goebbles might have picked up on, the desperation of the German people to Follow The Leader so to speak. For most of the film we don't know who is this Man Behind the Curtain (literally!) who delivers orders and demands to the criminals that they must carry out; mostly, it seems, involving a jewel heist worth hundreds of thousands.

It's curious that Lang casts/repeats the same character and actor from *M*, not the original Dr. Mabuse silent film, Captain Lohmann, for this film. Perhaps it's a crossbreed then of sequels, which is rare for any director to attempt: the same man who caught that child killer played so notoriously/well by Peter Lorre would return to find out this "Testament" era of Dr. Mabuse. We only see a little of Mabuse anyway... in *living form* that is. He scribbles notes and delivers them from his room, somehow. Of course I wouldn't dare reveal too much - yes, even for a film that is over eighty years old - but how it is actually getting out to the criminal elements are devilishly clever, if maybe, just a little, obvious.

But Lang is dealing in clichés here and having so much fun doing it. And his filmmaking is one of two modes and always so pleasurable to watch: either he's patient, waiting with his shots as the silent film master that he was, taking in actors' movements, usually when they talk right at the camera/the audience, OR he exercises his action-film chops with plenty of energy, particularly in the first act when we see a man who becomes surrounded by some of Mabuse's "minions" (which may involve a barrel full of explosives), and then in the climax which involves a chase and a man driving a car in a complete daze. Lang takes his time with his pulp, and milks moments for all they are worth. Of course watching bits like the one criminal and his girlfriend Lillie is a little dated (just how, you know, unconditional she is in her love), but you can take that with a grain of salt hopefully.

What's so striking here is how Lang gets this cops vs criminals thing down so well; he did it before in the first segment, and one wonders going in if there will be enough time to develop all of this. But this time it works so ingeniously because it's the crazy aftermath of Dr. Mabuse's reign (spoiler: he dies halfway through the film). So that his influence is practically supernatural, as he appears to characters as a crazy apparition, with eyes bugging out and a a face in crazier contours. It's this kind of scene that just by itself will make your hair rise. In the rest of the story... it makes sense, sort of. The acting matches the intensity of the action, and makes for a helluva potboiler. This is a filmmaker making a point about the terror and horrors of crime - and, of course, what a simple voice can do for easily impressionable people in dire straits - while having a lot of fun, in his own diabolical way. It dwells in the darkness of the human soul...

Again, like Batman.

Soul Survivors, 28 November 2014

Stones in Exile, which is decidedly much more about Richards but also about the group of the Stones at large, is perhaps just a little too short. It runs at a very brisk 60 minutes, which might be fine if one is looking for just the basic scoop ala-TV-documentary time. And maybe that is what it was meant for and is okay at. But this is a grand, epic story that got just the right amount of coverage in the books that have been released on that fateful summer of 1971 where the Stones left to France after England kicked their asses with over-taxes. You think it's tough here in the States, try getting an 83% tax rate!

Maybe it's because it's a book versus a movie, or maybe there isn't enough that the Stones, all of whom including retired members like Bill Wyman and ex-lovers like Anita Pallenberg, agreed to let out due to being interviewed. Hell, even Richards's oldest son Marlon, who got a good deal of mention in Richards' memoir, gives some scoop on what little he could remember of the period. Or maybe it's more of a specific stylistic choice that is a little irksome in the doc: there is precious little actual interview footage shown of the Stones- we do see Jagger and Charlie Watts wandering around the old grounds of the basement recording studio at Nellcote- as it's mostly just voice-over and narration over still images and some limited rehearsal footage.

There are a few talking heads- Martin Scorsese, Jack White, Benicio Del-Toro (?!)- but they're book-ended at the start and finish. I guess the one complaint is that it's not enough of a good thing, like a quarter of a filet mignon instead of the whole frigging slab of meat. And yet what is thrown to us is just fine, and if you have absolutely no knowledge of how the album was made (that is a novice Stones fan or maybe a curious visitor to their catalog) it is a good primer. We get to see some of the process, the long laboring to make just one song that could take days, and the peculiar and sometimes frustrating set-up at the Nellcote mansion of setting up musicians in a kitchen or a closet or bathroom just to get a particular sound. And, of course, other hassles like the distance-gap for Charlie Watts (a 6-7 hour drive round trip from his place to Richards' mansion!) and Mick Jagger's hyped marriage.

Oh, and Richards' heroin addiction, which is given some mention but not to the extent that one could see in some of the books, certainly by Richards' own admission (after the summer he actually had to go to a special rehab in Switzerland just to get one of his many future cold turkeys). But it is a fun process to watch in the documentary, filled naturally and thankfully with every song from the album (save maybe for "Let it Loose" if I'm not mistaken). It's a tale of exiles making a record that is filled with great sounds and experimentation, and it gets better on every listen as its little idiosyncrasies and mix of hard-rock and blues and western and even gospel ("Just Wanna See His Face") make it so eclectic as to be one-of-a-kind. As for the documentary... not so much.

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