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Boyhood (2014/I)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Students, Teachers, Dogs, 25 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When I watch a reasonably well built film, I cruise at two levels. One is the excellence of how I am captured by the way the narrative unfolds in a world I am seduced into maintaining (and possibly cocreating). The other gliding level has to do with how well I value that world.

Sometimes this focuses on the story itself, but usually for me we are talking about how deeply the surrounding, often just implicit, world has affected me. And whether I want to incorporate it into my worlds in some way.

Herzog for instance. His early films are profoundly affecting. The best of these are those that have the least of him in them. Once he got control of the wild process he pioneered, you start to see his world become clear.

That world is much like his style: It has a stylized plateau from which it can observe itself, introspective and formal. But the ground of reality is capricious, dangerous. Fate is angry and you enter expecting to be hurt. Once a foot is placed here, you can never fully escape, you can only retreat temporarily to beautifully see the damage, or potential damage. I still watch the man.

I can trust him to engage me and take me where I would not go. Uncomfortable places. But it is real work afterward to tease out who I am and how my world is different.

I get something like this with Linklater. He is a natural cinematic storyteller, and has been from the beginning. And now we have this remarkable film. It really deserves a very, very long life and all the celebration I see.

It truly grabbed me and almost always I did not feel unfairly captured. Simple proximity beats drama any day if you can do it. Tension in repose has power; personal explosions can fill a screen quota but seldom touch. This does.

Oh, I have some quibbles about how the characters are tiered. We have our central kids who own the world we enter. This is as genuine as it gets in film. We have the two parents. Now this is background existence. We accept that because they are real as well, but real in a more filmic sense. Ethan Hawke is so trustworthy in this, I marvel. But we get a different world than that of the kids, and that's deliberate. The third tier are the extra husbands, friends, other relatives, teachers and bosses.

Now these are ordinary narrative scaffolding, with traditional speeches borrowed from ordinary movies in tone and style. The kids are more real in this construction because the other tiers are not. But still, I got impatient as some of this went on. The real dilemma after entering Linklater's world and having it penetrate: what of it to use? What of it to respect as true in the tiers we build internally to live in?

Do I place it where the filmmaker has, as the way things are. The moment seizes us, and the best we can do is immerse and record? Linklater himself plays with these questions in some other projects and obliquely references them here as 'psychology.' And he sets distance from ordinary viewers by setting it in Texas.

A pledge allegiance to Texas?

Or do we take this, as I have today, as a background drama, being one reality among others that we gather to illuminate a life? I think this is what Malick intends in his similar project. Cinema must move relentlessly; this nature cannot be escaped. The viewer must accept the world in the way and at the pace the filmmaker decides.

This is a contract. But it comes with costs that prevent us mapping our real, true reality to that of a film that works to present a real, true one. We always have to shift it to one of the surrounding spheres we inhabit.

This is a three.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The Three Flows, 16 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I've been in training of a sort and unable to view serious movies, so it was difficult to arrange for this, and the anticipation built. Now I regret not having prepared better.

Filmmaking for me is calligraphy on water.

A filmmaker's art can be in the shape of what is written. Nolan, for example does well with this. It can be in how it is written. Kurosawa and Wells are good examples.

Or it can be in the nature of the *brush,* the instrument of capture itself.

Kae Wai Wong is the only living filmmaker that works in all three simultaneously.

So far as the story, I was lost much of the time. This clearly was made for a Chinese audience who would know the history and characters — and who would appreciate important regional differences. The unrolling was slightly non-linear but that was not a hindrance. Nevertheless, the three stories had power: a meditation on soulmates, a tragedy of lost/stolen tradition, an implicit history of cinematic fight styles. These are indeed treated as if they are fluid flows, only partly captured and disturbed by the looking. Some of the shifts from realistic to formalized (not unlike Herzog) underscore this.

Among the various threads on screen, the love story was what engaged me. Power in its restraint. A sort of noble but incomplete joy in the tragedy. Waiting to say little. Alone. The nature of the tragedy has so many ambiguous overtones it bleeds into an open life, which I presume to be a requisite for any of his films.

Among the threads behind the camera, I found the strokes here to be novel. This is film about traditions being merged to create power, a power incidentally that spawned a choreographic tradition in cinema. It seems as if the partnership with the new cinematographer (after the rich relationship with Chris Doyle), is based on moving from one *style* to another.

We have a variety of cinematic perspectives, many of which are beautiful. But the point seems to be the transitions one to another, the movement from one world-view to another. Lyrical vision, always expanded vision. Slow eye jazz. Experimental rhythms. Typical to this filmmaker is a reference to this: the ultimate fight scene is photographed with four perspectives, each with a unique style. *Behind* is a train that starts and by the end of the fight (and causing the end) it is racing. The effect is amazing.

I am used to the patterns he used with Doyle, whose choppiness clipped Kar Wai's meditations. Doyle's drifting complemented Kar Wai's fixed meditations. Now, it seems he has a new worthy collaborator, a partner in exploring new mixes, new expressions. I don't know this fellow well, but of course have seen his work. From how well the thing is assembled, I imagine they have shot a 20 hour movie.

At all three layers, he references dynamic water.

Rating: 3

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Angry Water, 11 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I understand that the development of this was a mess. What mattered to me were three things done well:

The transition from normal life to the human waves was jarringly effective. What I expect is a traditional zombie story. Some explanation and setup is given for the impending invasion and then we encounter the unrelenting but slowly moving threat. Here, we have a different formula: one we have tested with Tom Cruise and Will Smith: we are involved in everyday tedium and then bang! Explanations come later.

How do you innovate with this, make it more compelling? You leverage the effect mentioned in a moment. A tsunami builds. No one knows what is happening. You only know that people are desperate to flee at any cost and the panic is the initial horror. What could cause this? The pacing is perfectly timed to outrun our ability to absorb what is going on, just as it is for our on- screen folks.

Even in the midst of this shared confusion, we note that our hero has a different relationship to panic. (We know he is the hero only because he is Brad Pitt and that this film is produced by him for himself). He alone seems to absorb what is happening faster than anyone else, including us. We see him notice without knowing what he is understanding.

This is the highest level of craft, it seems to me, focused on the hardest part of the story, the beginning.

A second notable feature is what got this movie made, I suppose. The threat, at least in the first 2/3 of the movie, the original bits, is not zombies but zombie waves. Elsewhere I have written about using architectural water as a threat. A major advance was Perfect Storm and later Titanic where water could be given behavior, personality. Then we had Hereafter, where Eastwood directed a tsunami with intent.

What we see here is mobs rendered as flows, and the CG processes being those used for water working against gravity. There is genius in this as well, and a genuine advance in the art. (This comment is on the two-d version. I cannot see how a three-d-ization could improve anything.)

We also have a couple sections of good writing (noticed by my writer partner). These are placed where we expect to hear boring exposition, something about military labs or space probes. Something dreary but necessary. The first instance is with the Harvard genius who we are told is our best hope for understanding. he gives a speech instead about the capricious weakness of violent nature. It is a magnificent short speech, and then this last hope is dispatched.

The second great hope is also a trope: the Jewish doctor. His speech is well crafted as well. It runs against what we expect from the genre; no exposition. It also runs against what we expect from the WASPy Harvard guy. It is instead a meditation on perception, something which furthers the (at that point still undeveloped) special power of our hero.

This thing falls apart in the ordinary challenge of wrapping up a story. You can tell where a weak last third was pasted on. Now the zombies become individuals again and the storyline stops countering the genre. This is tense in the traditional way and works, but is far from the skill level of the earlier decisions which placed us in a new place concerning our view.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Intelligent Agency, 17 July 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was impressed by a few features of the first one. Most notably, it was a risk for them to adopt and extend a certain cinematic technique in such a high risk project. I wrote about the effect: having battle scenes with only a part of the action visible, either in the cut or the frame.

It meant we were not quite able to understand what was happening, who hit who precisely, and where they fell and such. This is not new, invented I believe by Kurosawa. But it was reframed by being in 3-D and involving creatures made of bits whose assembly we witness. In a similar fashion to actual battle, we can't follow what folds and tucks where.

I knew then that this was primarily for practical ends: the rendering technology and costs constrained them. But it made for pretty exciting visuals, reflecting the confusion one would have if they were there. It increased the immediacy of the thing. This was coupled with their choice for a color balance (something different than a color choice). They bucked the industry and went for something greenish and shocking. This also made it feel, subtly but strongly, as if it were a real thing.

Since then, the cinematic adventure has been washed away. They can now afford to have the fights be shown where the viewer can see and understand each movement — so much so that comic comments can be inserted. This is a step backwards in cinematic power. I can only assume that it was because nearly three hours of confusion wouldn't sell.

At the same time, we have a massive retreat to retro misogyny, more obvious product placement, overt pandering to the Chinese 'central' government, and less concern about acting.

But there is something to be said for the increased sophistication of agency in the narrative. Your standard blockbuster has one pair of agents: some bad guys and some good ones. All we do is see the good guys in peril designed for us to relate enough to cheer when the bad guys are suitably punished. As the genre evolves, the cosmic forces involved get more esoteric and involved, but this two-agent dynamic is constant.

So even though we have dumber fights, dumber characters and a dumber 'bomb' here, we also have a greatly expanded set of agents, revealed in pretty skillful manner. We also, I think, have the writers messing with the prior history of that world to build new ambiguities and tensions for future, multi agent conflict weaves.

Here, we have Autobots, our normal good guys. They seem to be recast as rat packers here, but never mind. We have the reliably evil CIA, off on some overpowered and misguided action, thumbing its nose as oversight.

We have the Kelsey Grammar CIA program manager whose motive could be money, could be honor, could be xenophobia, could simply be a drive for power from relative helplessness. (We would bring our knowledge that the CIA has screwed up so enormously and consistently in 50 years that anyone in power there has to be psychologically damaged.)

We have the stock genius-inventor tuned billionaire defense contractor. Arrogant, demanding, steeped in adoring women. (Why he only has 20 billion dollars is odd. Even minor talents like Gates got 80 billion by thuggery. One Lockheed project is estimated at 1 Trillion.) We discover that he has internal agents: the desire for a companion, the quest for knowledge, an urge to control and of course fame and fortune.

There's Megatron, our standard bad guy. His motives are represented as simple evil.

The odd player in this is the alien bounty hunter who may be in it for something like money. He seems to be a counterpart to the CIA guy, with similar internal drives; he could be playing the system himself.

The rather sweet complications: The billionaire may be controlled by the CIA guy or the other way around. The Megatron may be controlled by the billionaire or the other way around. The bounty hunter may be controlled by the CIA guy or the other way around.

At the robot level, the bounty hunter may be mastered by 'the creators;' the ancients (I forget their name in this universe) may be mastered by the autobots; the prototypes may be mastered by the Galvatron who may be mastered by the Megatron head.

To support this is (I believe) a backstory that is new: the creators used a seed to create the original Earth-bound transformers, incidentally destroying the dinosaurs (minus birds). Also new is the idea that the material can be mined and exploited for its own agency. We see the defense contractor and his team direct the material to form different objects. Some inner soul of the transformers overrides this intrinsic agency.

It all seems to have been worked out at the level that Tolkien established as the standard and which (actual creators) Takara and the Hassenfeld Brothers glossed.

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.

Flat Black Tongues, 18 May 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Oh help. Oh no! This is not the Gruffalo.

If you know the book of which this story is the sequel, then you have experienced something special. It has an untrusted narrator nested in another untrusted narrator. The inner con is by a mouse who fools dumb predators with a tale of a fictional creature. The outer con has the noir storyteller change the nature of the world to make this creature real.

The mouse then modifies his original con to escape the new danger. The surrounding execution of the book is good: rhythms and detail in the drawings. But the real power of the thing is the way it takes a Chinese folk tale (similar to the Br'er Rabbit stories) and adds in this meta-noir, meta-cinematic structure.

So imagine my anticipation on hearing that the same team produced a sequel and that it had been translated into film. Back into film would be my preferred notion.

Well, "The Gruffalo's Child" book has none of the magic of the original — none of the teasing of truth that made me want to expose my kids to it.

This story is told without any folds in the narration. There is a nesting in the film version that copies that of the film of the first story: a mother squirrel telling the story of the child, but even that is straight; there is no causal connection between the world of the squirrels and that of the mouse. This only works if you have the original story in your head and consider this a second half-chapter.

The style of the animation is poor. The book's text is jaunty and the illustrations support that (without adding to it). The studio who did this apparently had a good procedure for snow, but chose to renter all the creatures as balloons.

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Sniffing the Dog that Went Before, 27 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There isn't much to say about the ordinary features of this. It is a Marvel production and that means the world is dull in all aspects. They seem incapable of leaving safe territory, so this is more or less Michael Bay in the nineties.

But there is something interesting going on. The way these films are put together, I believe, is as a set of manufactured stereotypes for the world market. You can't just target the US any more.

Of course you still have to have a baseline of American grit, with the structure of a Western. And you have to honk around with roles of women. Those are essential for this recipe.

What's interesting to me is the way the Japanese are handled. Japanese culture as filtered through film is a more powerful influence I think than even Europe minus Italians. Italian storytelling stands apart in film, and the influence is strong.

But not as strong as Ozu and Kurosawa. Heck, Japanese film makers even did French new wave better. So when a film wants to leave the underground of who invented what in the cinematic vocabulary and just shuffle stereotypes, but from the same world, it folds into something novel.

Our guy on the other side is a somewhat noble officer at a POW camp. Saved from The Bomb, he turns on his savior because he wants the technology in his soul. One of the world's richest technology companies was created by this guy, but instead of the American Tony Stark model, he can only implement ideas from others. The genius in the picture is a Western woman, incidentally evil in ordinary ways, who is hired by our Japanese mogul.

Part of the stereotyping is that nothing is settled on the western side. Our hero hates his life of constant pain and remorse. Our western evil woman knows she is absolutely evil. But shift to the corrupt Japanese politician, the organized crime hoards, the Japanese boss, the rejected boyfriend... All these live in a world in which their actions are proper.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Internals Revealed, 27 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I do dimly recall the first couple books of the series. They were engagingly written. But more importantly, they used a device that probably won't work today.

The books were powerful because they focused on Ender's internal mind. The second book folded this into Ender's own book a what it wrought. A very clever structure. The first book was imagined second, and had to use a different folding device. The solution was games.

This wouldn't work today because games have become more prescriptive and in the world. In the eighties, they were vastly more abstract, closer to the imagination than to furniture.

See, the thing is that winds of the mind are ephemeral. You have to describe something else to convey the shape of them. This is why, for example, something as invisible as love is conveyed through stories of war or political upheaval.

Card's war was only an excuse for the exclusive focus on war gaming, which could stand in and illuminate his internal emotional forces. These were suitably simplified for a teen audience, so the match could be well made. But in the book, the genius is that reader invented what the games looked like, being a cocreater of the world. The pathway through the games then segued to a pathway for the alien creature. Not sure why so many of these alien creatures are insect- like.

The movie has most of the same story, but none of this folding. The war is real. The games are as real as the real world (with one exception). So what we are stuck with is having to get Ender's emotions from the face of a weak child actor.

Nothing to say about Harrison Ford. He has a rough enough life.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Inception, 16 March 2014

There seems to be quite a consensus that this doesn't have any educational value. Such a stance presumes that kids need explicit teaching and preaching. Either you need to include an alphabet in your song like Sesame Street or have some obvious moral conclusion. How silly.

Kids learn by what they see of how things are abstracted. If they are abstracted by nitwits, then they learn to be nitwits who cannot think critically. I don't have a TeeVee in my house, but I do allow my one and two year olds to watch this, because it has some very clever ideas in it.

Oh, the ideas are not in the story at all. Good ideas seldom can be; they are in how you get to the thing in the first place. Consider:

The thing is nested in a vignette of a toddler's hand being stroked to sleep. That hand morphs to a boat in another enclosing situation, one that is amazingly rich. A simple being pulls down his sail at the end of a day. The boat becomes his bed and the sail his blanket. in this level of reality, the boat then drifts and we transition to yet another layer under reality. The stars become blossoms that surround and cover the night garden, where most of our time is spent.

If you think kids don't get and appreciate this deep folding of reality, you haven't been around bright kids. It isn't what happens in the world of the story so much for them, but what that world is, how it works and how they get there.

Once in the garden, we have some events, which one could think of as a day in the life of these characters. Several things go on, only a few of these make complete sense. Many things that happen, just happen without cause or consequence. Again, think like a child and how they see the world.

Then finally we have the fourth inner world: the story we have seen in the abstract garden is recounted in drawings. This follows Ted's Law of abstraction: the abstract distance between those drawings and the puppet/animated world is the same as between that world and ours.

The crossover character, Igglepiggle once in his dream world has only a few expressive dimensions. he squeaks and he falls down. He alone seems to be able to communicate with the narrator, a sort of higher self.

Yes, some of the characters and objects have winning appeal, but it is the way this layered world is built that I think can teach my kids something worthwhile.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.

4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Slaves in the Hold, 15 March 2014

I live near Pat Robertson's elaborate film school, and have often wondered what the world will be like when religious extremists master effective filmmaking. What happens when we move from Roger Ailes to Leni Riefenstahl? Well, here we have something that tells me we are close.

The values behind this thing are disturbing, even repellent. The history is even backwards, needlessly so. But this is so finely crafted, so extraordinarily fine tuned story-telling that I have to remark on it. So set aside the dangerous notions of self and sex as explosive violence. Set aside jingowoven, hooha misogyny. Set aside the notion that every blow is spectacularly fatal.

The original was notable in its production method; a few real objects and bodies in the foreground with synthesized, situational background. A side effect of this method allowed two teams to optimize independently. So the main characters had refined, economical costumes and totems.

The similar, more traditional process used for example in "Gravity" tightly connected the synthesized bits with the foreground actors, with the side effect of constraining both. Narrative economy had to be found elsewhere, and was.

But here, you basically have two movies, one playing behind the other. Each has its own cinematic philosophy and creative team.

An example of how conscious of this and clever these folks are; how do you integrate these? I mean visually, because this is essentially a new cinematic vocabulary. Well, you introduce spatial dust that exists in both worlds simultaneously. Every scene here has this dust, sometimes floating embers. It jars at first, but the distraction is necessary to its effectiveness.

Another example: nearly every filmed battle we have in our cinematic tradition is a land battle. We have a couple of those here. But they are nested in a grander sea battle, just as the former movie is nested in the story. How do you stage and choreograph such a thing?

And here, I was also impressed by the talent and novelty brought to the problem. For the first time, we have battles with new motions and cameras. Oh, we still have the big lugs in the foreground doing their traditional Kurosawa through Braveheart thing. But how to be exciting with ships? How to convey situation?

A notable technique messed with my brain. They messed with the physics of water. The cinematic Ted loved how the stage was bent. Ships here literally come over impossible huge standing hills of water. Notions of speed and penetration were borrowed from other worlds. (Is this common in video games?) The scientific Ted had to simply live with it.

Integrating foreground and background? Water and oars were rendered using the same tropes as sword and blood.

A lot of art here. No decision seems to have been the default one. A bushel of economies are delivered, including the economy of theatrical urges. Urges made plain, visible and fluid.

I only wish they were on my team, working to challenge and enrich. What happens when practically evil minds get these methods?

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.

Renoir (2012)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Keyhole Painter, 30 January 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In theory, this should be one of my dearest films. It concerns sensuous urge at the level of obsessive spirituality. A way of continually falling in love that is itself worth falling in love with.

It concerns painting and is intended to be presented in a painterly way. The setting is a fantasy for many men: being lovingly cared for by a coven of dedicated women so that you can indulge as an artist and be celebrated.

But most of all, it is structured as what I call a folding. It is a collection of images about making images. It is also a film about the making of a significant filmmaker.

These three things proceed simultaneously, driven by a single woman. The setup of the story is similar to the much superior "La belle noiseuse (long version):" In that film, you can see the model's body be enriched by how it is seen. We *see* it being seen and how. The woman in that case is rather ordinary outside the story, but her side and the surrounding film weave seduction successfully. We get it, all the many mysteries evoked.

Not so here. We do understand what is being inferred, in part because characters speak about it. But we never enter the level where flesh dissolves into and dissolves our life. There is disappointment all around and it is too easy to blame the actress who is the focus. She never transcends. But this is less her fault than the filmmaker's. He simply doesn't give us watcher's souls to step into.

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.

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