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Fish & Cat (2013)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Wandering, not Wondering, 30 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Gosh I live in such rich disappointment. When I encounter someone who naturally understands cinema and who has the potential to affect me, I want him/her to. I want love to follow beauty.

This is an extraordinary film, unique in my experience. It happens in what we think of as real time with no edits. The camera is always on, following someone at eye height. The flow is continuous, yet we encounter many of the same events in this continuum but slightly different each time, never in a way that changes things. Tarkovsky did something like this.

We shift from dialog, often shouted to encounter points far away, to inner narration to 'direct to us' narration.

The first encounter provides an extra loop from the offscreen past that overlaps, and this happens again in the middle, giving us the feeling of a fabric we cannot escape. The setting is a sparse wood, adding to the abstract tone. I was so completely captured, so completely in the control of this filmmaker, that I was prepared to encounter something beyond. Oh how I wanted this. It never came, and in fact the last five minutes are botched. We know something is going to happen but we oddly move from implication to the explicit, followed by an 8 1/2 inspired musical punctuation.

This also was a disappointment though hardly rare. Few filmmakers know how to leave us. This is a young filmmaker, and I will want to see what he learns about life; I fear he may not have much opportunity.

Which brings me to the extra dimension for me. I am an embarrassingly typical US viewer, though I am confident I understand ancient Persian history well. The primary cast here is young Iranians, university students on an outing. Such students play a different role in society than their counterparts in the West, but the major mismatches are much more profound.

That society is no more flawed, even ridiculous than ours, but it is far easier to see from the outside, and loop it back to myself. Small loves of course and small lives as well. Dread that conveys, and human-maintained desperation, not in the least self-aware. It is an added dimension for me, but not enough to save this film.

I almost wish for something less ambitious but which matters. But in all honesty I vacillate.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
What is written writes itself, 21 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Can't say enough good things about this.

Let's start with what it is not. It is not rewarding long form filmmaking. It is TeeVee, and despite the rush of talent into TeeVee series, and their ability to engage, this will never be the sort of thing that we go to for lucid dream walking. The techniques I will be lauding here have been used for decades in films that matter, let's say for example by Ruiz. But never in the mainstream like this.

But this thrills me because it makes explicit folding the default for popular entertainment. Oh, it is masked by energy and OCD. And too much is 'explained' by way of drugs, mind palaces and so on. But this is mainstream, big time popular stuff and its primary structure is that of folding.

We have a Victorian character set in modern times who is transported back to the referenced context. This is done by drugs, by an unrelated inner space of visualized 'working out.' We have the reality, two realities in fact conflated with the stories written in each reality, sometimes shifting control. We have the fold that Conan Doyle put in, the one about Mycroft and Holmes directing each other.

And then there is the staging where reality and the account of reality are merged.

And we get it. We like it. Ten years ago, we were still in Mary Tyler Moore territory. A mass audience wouldn't follow these shifts in abstraction, these skips among parallel realities and creating spaces. I wish it were not served as a device to keep the attention of dopes that can't pay attention. But it is sophisticated abstract reasoning nonetheless, and we didn't have that, even remotely when I was a kid.

Stoker (2013)
Not Thirsty Enough, 21 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Having seen and been unhealthily engaged in 'Thirst' I acquired this.

It reminded me of a similar disappointment. One of my most trusted filmmakers is Kar Wai Wong, someone who has expanded my electric cage. His first non-English film 'Blueberry Night' was every bit as ambitious as, say, 'Chun King Express," but had none of the adventure. None of the crazy veers past the guard rail. I suppose it was because at home, his crew understood intuitive shifting as you go. His borrowed US crew had no idea, so he just had to plow through the seafood to the nauseous end.

This is less of a failure. Many of the themes, urges and cinematic devices from 'Thirst' are here.

The actress seems to understand, but she's just too much of a person where she needs to be a simple container of undirected, temporarily knotted desires.

The Charlie in this one isn't much different than Hitchcock's Uncle Charlie, more mad, but as much in control. Too much control for what I think Chan-wook Park had in mind. But he had a script, and not the room to intuitively embellish. Does simply using US assets kill non-character oriented improvisation?

Shanghai (2010)
No Lust, Too Cautionary, 20 January 2016

I've written before about the tendency in film to couple a love story with some radical political turmoil. The reason is simply that love is not inherently cinematic. Sex is and female attractiveness can be, but I'm talking here about the dimensions of love and in particular that dangerous love that swallows all else, bringing certain ruin.

We have many examples of this, including Ang Lee's amazing 'Lust, Caution.' I mention that film because it worked; it drew me in, made me re-experience my own love and terrified me. This is one thing a film can do, entangle experiences. When one is in control of a master storyteller, but out of control of the viewer, and the personal engagements of the viewer are also out of control, you get a mix of reliving a part of your life knowing *someone* is in control.

I also mention is because it is much the same story as in this film, involving the same events. But Lust works. This doesn't. Part of the problem is the director of course. We know the story works; it is based on a well understood cinematic dynamic. We've seen these actors be effective before. In this comment, I would like to focus on one error. It isn't the only one; the main problem is that the director is meek. The thing of interest to me is the attempt to build on noir.

Noir is simple: a random guy is manipulated by forces beyond his control, and those forces, by a few conventions, are merged with our identities as viewers. It has some indicators. It starts with the hero in a very bad spot, then establishes itself as a narrated story, with the hero as narrator. There are a few cinematic ticks as well and we get these early enough to get the message.

The basic problem, I think, is that these two cinematic traditions do not naturally mix. They grew over 60 - 70 years, each of them. Each has shortcuts to an implied contract between viewer and filmmaker.

What Lust did was place the viewer in the story. We suffer as the characters do, carrying angst against the unknown. What noir does is place the viewer outside the story as manipulator of fate, together with the filmmaker. Both can disturb, engage, reward but the machinery is different.

Narrative Logic, 18 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I think I would like to warn you off of this one.

The opportunity that time travel stories offers is the ability to retroactively change what you have seen.

In normal stories, this is one of the most effective devices we have, a way for the author to toy with the very act of comprehending the world. It can be cast as a game between author and viewer as they cocreate the story and tease each other. Time machine movies make that explicit. Con and deceptive movies also do this, make the game an explicit part of the contract.

But for it to work, the force of what changes has to be strong enough to be accepted by the viewer, provide enough energy to drive the reinvention of what we have already accepted. Chris Nolan is a master of this; I'll trust him explicitly, investing more in what he offers as the setup than in anyone else. Many time travel movies get this.

Looper, Primer and Predestination are movies that don't exploit this, presenting puzzles that are intriguing but use travel of the old fashioned kind, the H G Welles kind the we simply watch. But this film depends on the reinvention; the characters talk about it for an hour.

A man is a genius college professor. He has a greater genius son, also a professor, who figures out time travel. Alas, it involves coils, a cabinet and a flash of light. He gets incidentally killed on his first trip back. Those that are left are unhappy with their lives. His son is the greatest genius of the bunch and reinvents the machine to go back to change things, but only a few things.

The last five minutes is what this genius comes up with, when he goes back in time to meet his newly arrived Dad. If you are like me, someone who expects some narrative magic, who wants that thrill you get on first watching The Sting or Sixth Sense, you will be disappointed and a bit angry.

Much else in this film is done well. The score in particular is good.

You'll get hints of the disappointment. A lone genius poring over an equation-laden chalkboard looking for that one insignificant error, as if it were the point of the movie, Poirot-style. Some poorly researched mumbo jumbo about relativity and quantum mechanics as if they were the solution to a next generation of understanding rather than barriers. A final revelation that produces absolute confidence. Simple interpersonal dynamics, the kind you can sketch on a timeline without missing anything essential. (That timeline is actually a prop in the story.)

And then we get the end, the action our genius among genies has calculated with similar precision.

But it makes no sense. I usually don't need or even want sense in a film, but you need it here if you expect us to reweave things. And we don't get it.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Loco Motives, 27 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Lawrence Olivier was an actor who delivered rewards, but acting is not storytelling and sometimes the opposite is the case. He made a well regarded Hamlet and approached it as expected; he inhabited the character and let *that* being drive what was presented. If only he understood the confounding dynamic structure the author erected to allow us to have at each instant several beings inhabiting that soul. The beauty of the play is in how their layers, folds and governance stay always ahead of our ability to cleanly see the world's edges.

Suchet has similar power over the detective he has played now for some time. He has inhabited the character and extended him far beyond what the author envisioned. Some of it is quite impressive and affords the intensity Suchet (or any actor) desires. But it fights the structure Christie mastered. It is a matter of personal discovery for me that I crave both Christie and Shakespeare.

The former is about abstract purity, logical clarity where emotion is color only. Shakespeare uses urge as his primary quality, where urges can be spiky or smoky, weaving and stinking. He conveys reason without logic, sense without cleanliness.

Christie's villains are simply wicked. The story is a matter of presenting logical impossibilities and having our detective sort them so that they are physically possible. These are logic puzzles. The characters have emotions, color and even motive as a second order. Her attention was all in the form; she could have no suspect be the murderer, or all. The narrator could be, or the murdered themselves. The more physically impossible, and the more unlikely the solution, the better. Like Holmes, Poirot would be far more interested in resolution than justice.

Most editions of this story have a diagram of the coach, showing who could see what and where anyone could move. Facts as they appeared and were reshaped were all done so in this physical context. The Sidney Lumet 1974 version preserved all this while adding enough color to satisfy viewers who did not want to engage with the story, helping to sort the pieces.

This version has none of that detective folding, where we work with the detective. The impossibilities of the murder are largely omitted. The culpability of the porter is necessary here but ignored. On the other hand, we have three fine locomotives. I don't know where they got that remarkable train, but it would be a great addition to any competent story.

And of course we have Suchet, who seems to be far ahead of all the other production assets in defining what the story is and what it is about. I am not a fan of the notion that each character has/is one primary urge and the bumping of these urges is what drama is about. No, that doesn't work for me. But it is interesting to see the control he has, dragging all else behind to suit.

The big surprise for me: Jessica Chastain! What a presence, something between Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore and every bit as powerful.

Suchet could take lessons; power is in what you give away to make your world work.

A Two: has some interesting elements.

App (2013)
Vision, 24 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This promises two things.

One is a lightweight system to connect an App with a movie. You download the free App and launch it. It listens to the film and synchronizes some images and a little video from time to time. This is a fantastic idea, but in this case the experience wasn't expanded. The main effect is that the movie is purportedly about an app with the same name that takes over your phone and life, potentially very spooky, like having Ringu in your VHS player.

The other promise is a new twist on the charmed evil object merged with the trope of an AI system capable of gathering from anywhere and reaching everywhere. We've seen too many from the AI side already, many of them so uninformed they cannot register. They may as well use genies.

That's something of what goes on here. In fact we have three horror notions merged.

The app in some instances has to be placed on the phone but in others not. It seems to be connected to everything that is online, but the appearance and behavior is unsophisticated.

It also is magical, turning on a radio that it knows will bounce into a pool; driving a truck into a car. Making a phone explode. Reading minds.

We also have the technologist conspirators, a supposedly bright student and a medical doctor who have placed this app here and there and also control it to some extent. There is no discernible logic to what we see, though. (The app kills the student.)

A typical high tech NSA conspiracy plot can use these without much question: the organization is evil and the tech is often out of control. Simple.

Some deaths occur to keep the app undisclosed. The app appears to spy on the student's old girlfriends. It is used to try to control prosthetics for the heroine's crippled brother…

One episode seems purely evil, revealing a completely unrelated gay encounter between student and professor. You've got to be pretty soft in the head to not let these key matters get in the way.

No redeeming content, despite the downloadable second screen experience.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Adaptation, 18 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The story itself is about adapting from a not ideal Japanese state to the purest state, a Geisha. In Japan, the rural north is considered to consist of country bumpkins, something like in the US we associate with the South. A Geisha's training includes many arts but primarily speaking, and doing so in the pure, accent-free native Kyoto dialect.

A girl raised by her grandparents speaks the northern dialect and is otherwise ungraceful. She wants to enter training in a Kyoto teahouse as a Maiko, an apprentice Geisha. (She later learns she is the daughter of a favored Geisha.)

While the story is about merging the natural talent, grace and beauty of this girl into the perfect Japanese ideal, the form of the story is anything but. Excepting perhaps Denmark, Japan has the most distinct cinematic traditions and when a film deviates from these or borrows from elsewhere it is remarkable. 'Tampopo' was intriguing because of how it adopted French adaptations of US gangster films.

This tries a similar but more radical experiment. I cannot say how it plays in Japan, but boy it sure did not work for me.

The story is roughly "My Fair Lady" both in form — it is a musical — and in the way this girl is sponsored and trained by a linguistic professor for his own ends. The musical form, however, is not from the Broadway tradition but from Bollywood, including an end dance sequence with all the players dancing in concert together with standard Bollywood sequined costumes and many characters from diverse films, like Snow White.

It its a bold experiment. I saw it on an transcontinental Delta flight, often a dumping ground for failed but quirky international films. I'd be really interested in how was received natively, but from here all the seams are unsewn.

Some interesting elements.

23 out of 47 people found the following review useful:
Luke rewrites Matthew, 18 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a replacement comment for the one written on opening night. I've had a chance to see it again, this time in 3D, and of course think about it.

The big picture here is that the creative team made a modern film in the sense that it is folded, meaning it is about itself and how it presents other films. There are hundreds of examples of this of course, but this is the biggest movie in history, so something important is going on. In thousands of comments here, I've remarked on this new development, where more and more films have introspective dynamics. We are changing how we think, managing thoughts on at least two levels: the story and the story about the story, or how the story is presented. There is real power in this, because such introspection is a half step away from seeing yourself while being yourself, and that is half a step away from what might be called living the force.

An example: the story in this film had to recycle elements from the previous ones (actually just the first two). What is our heroine about but literally scavenging elements from the prior films? Throughout, the term 'scavenger' is used as an insult but Rey carries it proudly. She clearly knows something about herself we don't.

Our first scene with her matters. We have been transported with captured Poe into the hanger bay of a star destroyer, which Poe finds impressive. Immediately after, we have Rey rappelling into an identical bay from the last Star Wars saga. She will later fly through this and other parts of that wreckage.

About the handling of space. Other than story details, this had to have been much chewed over, because since the original films, our conventions of what a camera is have changed. The original two films were themselves intended to be retro in how they handled the camera. In 1977, the techniques attributed to Hitchcock and Welles were common, where the camera was no longer passive. It became our representative in the film, subtly indicating what we would do if we were there, or what role we would play. The camera could be curious, for instance, show revulsion or fascination. Lucas chose to have the camera be as it was in the 40's. This is one reason dePalma and Coppola thought the movie stunk. But that and the practical effects worked for us, indeed became part of what we loved.

Now flash forward to a time where no action movie can be made without the active camera, the camera as our representative. What balance does Abrams find, but to have two film philosophies interwoven. In all the 'character' scenes, the effects are mostly practical and the camera is retro. In all the action scenes, the effects are mostly GCI and the camera is the modern one. The difference is striking because Lucas used a 1930 Howard Hughes dogfight movie as his template for the space battles. Here we still have spacecraft moving as if they were biplanes moving fast, but the weaves among them and among the camera are modern. (This was pioneered by Pixar, and their direct influence is obvious in the 3D version.)

One final observation on the story reflecting the film itself. When Lucas and Kurtz invented the characters for the first film, they paid a lot of attention to archetypes. Most commonly cited is the work of Joseph Campbell but they more deeply studied the most popular of these, the Jesus story. (They didn't mention this for obvious reasons.) Think of Mark as history and each of the following gospels as episodes that added to the story.

Mark (without the later ending) is about a preacher of parables with no special birth and no resurrection. Matthew in the next episode adds a virgin birth, influence from Persia and Egypt (then considered magical) and rising from the dead. Where Mark had him in the Nazarene desert, Matthew brought him into cosmic battle.

The third episode written as 'history' emphasized Jesus role in building an order of followers, whose collective adherence to (lets call it) the force will sweep over the planet and redeem it. The devil appears here with his own order, the 'first order' chronologically created.

One might assume that the name Luke Skywalker was random, or that it mirrored Lucas' name. But this is not the case, and this is something Kasdan understood. All he did was give us the Jesus story filtered through Kurosawa.

Why mention this? Because Kasdan is again on the case and what he does is metaphorically overlay Luke on Matthew, giving us both.

Flubber (1997)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Cinematic Inner Minds, 24 September 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

17 years on. Not a bad time to evaluate a film for merit. Supposing it doesn't work — this one doesn't — we have a chance to reflect on its place in history. Yes we have the beloved Robin Williams in his least lovable mode: physical slapstick and Asbergers brilliance. We have Elfman at his least attractive self as well, before he assembled the creative team that makes catchy honking jingles in his name.

We have no change from the quantum states of film scientist: evil or goofy or the guy that-saves-the-world. We have John Hughes and his brand of injury slapstick just as it was becoming unfunny. The CGI creature was not technically impressive; it had been half a decade since Cameron's liquid metal.

But we do have one element that is really interesting. If you have not seen this recently, we have a genius scientist/inventor of the Tony Stark variety — someone who can both 'invent' chemically and construct robot gismos. One of these is a humanized floating globe robot, who seems to be primarily a companion. The way this is written, the robot is physically real and combats the bad guys.

But she occupies other interesting spaces as well. She is (has been created as?) a love interest. She (using an ordinary Windows machine) is capable of creating a holographic projection of a perfect female to 'love' our professor. The romance plot turns on her loving him so much that she heals his romance with the real girl, a tepid soul. (The voice is Jodi Benson who will be known in countless households as the Disney Princess Prime.)

Much, much more interesting is the role of the floating orb as the inner voice of our Asbergers Autist. What she actually says is uninteresting; how she says it is fascinating. When something important is to be communicated, she pops up a screen that has a short scene or image from an old movie (from the Disney archive).

As it happens, this is not for the professor to see. He often isn't looking. It is for us to see, a direct connection with the audience, but presented so that we understand it as the image in the shared mind at that moment. It is a pretty remarkable device, having memories of film illustrate what is in someone's mind. It is perhaps the fundamental challenge of film. Books can take you in the mind and soul. Films can show you things that indirectly have to do so.

Robin Williams had nothing to do with writing this or elaborating it as he often did. But now that he is gone, it is tempting to redo these scenes and composite in the film sequences that were likely in his hyperactive mind, as far from Asbergers as one can get without destruction.

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