78 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Clerks (1994)
Gritty black humor and honest human interaction
2 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I watched the first cut version of "Clerks." I was prepared to be mildly amused and not much impressed. I ended up enthralled, deeply moved, and with a ton of admiration for Kevin Smith's direction.

I tend to like low-budget movies more than polished, expensive ones, in part because my tastes are classical, and simplicity attracts me. I also admire the inventiveness needed to make a good film with simple means and not much money.

This film, for me, succeeds 100% in meeting those goals. Yes, there are moments, several of them, that are contrived, but there is no indication, from the first scene, that the film is intended to be naturalistic. The director later had misgivings about Dante falling out of a closet, presumably because he had to sleep there due to the dog taking up the bed. I think it was a stroke of genius, for it "warns" the viewer that strange things are apt to happen in the film. They certainly do--abundantly.


When it came to the last scene, I had a sudden sense of foreboding, and then came the awful ending to the film. I felt shattered and yet I felt that this was exactly right--in keeping with what city life really is. Is it still a comedy? Yes and no. I will be reflecting on the contrast between the body of the film and its horrific ending for a long time, and don't expect to find any easy answers.

The friendship between Randal and Dante, who can neither stand each other nor do without each other, is so well portrayed with such simple means that I marvel at the psychological perception required, and used. Randal really is a guy who genuinely wants to help others, and this is slowly revealed through the film. He's clumsy, he's rude, he can be obscene, but he basically has compassion that wins out. I think this is one of the best characterizations I've seen anywhere.

I rated this a ten. Before I watched it, I figured it would deserve maybe a four, from what I'd heard of it. I will be watching this one again.
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Lisbon Story (1994)
Warm-hearted tribute to the power of art
17 February 2005
The first time I watched "Lisbon Story" I was disappointed and rather annoyed at what seemed a pretentious and self-indulgent experiment.

Then several months later, I watched it again, and was captivated by it, enjoyed it thoroughly, and found it to be a good-hearted, affectionate salute to motion pictures and by extension to art in general. Though the film's humor frequently borders on being downright corny, I couldn't help enjoying even that aspect because of the obvious good will with which it was presented. It feels refreshing to have a film-maker work so hard to amuse the audience! That in itself is a token of respect.

Wenders has made here a film that's slippery, puzzling, and that eludes the mind's grasp at every turn, yet in the end delivers a powerful and even joyful message. It takes a certain amount of courage to send a positive message to an audience these days--or even in 1994, when the film was released. I applaud Mr. Wenders and I applaud this film. I'm very glad I thought to watch it again--I will definitely see it again in future, too.
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My reservations are only technical...
7 November 2004
...and then only in regard to the atrocious VHS presentation of this film. It's a good thing I understand a fair amount of German and of French, for fully 2/3 of the subtitles are illegible, and the dialog is presented about 50-50 in those two languages. Why on earth did they use white lettering for subtitles--when this film takes place in winter, with snow all about? For that matter, why do they ever use white subtitles at all? It has always been possible to use either white characters bordered by black, or vice-versa, rendering subtitles legible against any background. This technical incompetence is inexcusable and an insult to a very fine film.

I was completely caught off guard, not having read Ms. Yourcenar's novel, by the plot twist near the end. Let me warn you: there is not one bright spot in this whole movie, nor should there be, set as it is in the most horrific, chaotic days of World War I. It is gripping, the character development is splendid, the characters are three-dimensional and complex, and the plot presents enough moral and ethical dilemmas to occupy a thinking person's idle moments for months.

Acting is uniformly excellent to superb--and the character of the aunt is one that may haunt your dreams, or nightmares, forever after.

I voted an eight and am not sure this film doesn't deserve a ten.
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True Crime (1999)
Pretty bad
7 September 2004
Clint Eastwood's one of my favorite actors and one of my favorite directors; I can't think of any other film figure who fits in both categories of favorites.

Even so, I could only give this film a "five," and even then felt I was being a bit over-generous. The plot has logical potholes in it; the acting is often really bad; some scenes are so sentimental they made me cringe and want to hit the DVD fast-forward button (but I restrained myself).

On the plus side, the film has that "Eastwood look" that I love; it can't just be the California sunlight--so many films are made there. (Besides, the night scenes have that trademark look to them, too. He has a masterful eye, I believe.)

And there's just the presence of Eastwood himself to enjoy. I agree with another commenter that he should have had a somewhat more mature film wife by that stage in his career! But I understand he's devoting himself solely to directing from now on, so that's an issue in the past.

Just to witness that special brand of toughness that his characters invariably display, is reason enough to watch any Eastwood film. I wonder if it doesn't speak to something, often repressed, inside many of us. I know I often find myself thinking, "Damn. That's just what I would have liked to say under the circumstances." And then, naturally, feeling grateful that I don't find myself under the circumstances of his characters!
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Trips over itself, alas
18 August 2004
Warning: Spoilers
There's a British expression, "Too clever by half," that came to my mind about an hour and twenty minutes into this film--a film which could have been exceptionally good, but manages only somewhat-above-average status because of its excessive artiness.

There's no lack of drama, and, rare for American films, there's moral content aplenty. All the more shame that a movie that contains not only those elements but some of the most beautiful images I've ever seen on a screen, ultimately falls flat because of self-indulgent, confusing, and downright silly "artistic" overflow.

I voted "7" but dearly wish I could give this film a ten because after all it does take either guts or considerable financial risk-taking to make an American film that requires its audience actually to think, and to think about serious matters of life, death, and human relationships and responsibilities. I wholeheartedly commend the backers of this film for taking that big risk, and I just as wholeheartedly regret the missed opportunities in the final product.

-----WARNING: (minor, early-plot) SPOILER FOLLOWS-----------------------

It was interesting to watch the scene in which the sheriff has to carry out the painful task of delivering the death message to Mrs. Heine. It's virtually a replay, and obviously a homage, to the scene in Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" (1963) in which the pastor (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) must drive to the home of Max von Sydow's character to tell his widow of his suicide. The very next scene in "Snow Falling on Cedars" takes place in the courtroom -- with Max von Sydow in a sterling performance as the defense attorney. I found this reference touching and beautiful.
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Trolösa (2000)
A magnificent, cathartic film
30 July 2004
Last night, I watched "Faithless," and I've thought about it almost constantly since. A magnificent, heart-rending film. Surely this is Bergman's finest script. It's absolutely uncompromising in its unsentimental, clinical, story-telling, and filled with that compassion devoid of hope that is Bergman's trademark, and his own world view.

Hopelessness as the key to dignified human life, day by day, would seem to be an apt description of Bergman's philosophy.

I won't give away the dénouement of the story, in case you are fortunate enough not to have seen it yet, and to be able to see it. Let me just say that I was completely surprised by the plot twist near the end--it caught me entirely off-guard, and later I felt that I should have seen it coming, but I didn't. That's the mark of a master writer, to be able to take the reader (or viewer) unaware. Ingmar Bergman could have had a career as a mystery/suspense writer if he'd wanted to. (I'm glad he didn't.)

The story of "Faithless" is that of a marriage plunged into chaos by the aftermath of one chance phrase, uttered by a close friend of the married couple to the wife after a late-night supper. With a dazzling propensity for making wrong choices, which, if we're honest, we'll all recognize existing in our own lives, the protagonists rush headlong into a hell of their own making. At the center of the story, like a small, still, silent observer, resides Isabelle, the nine-year-old daughter. The effect of the grown-ups' actions on this poor child renders the story all the more poignant and horrifying.

But what I've sketched here (omitting the surprise towards the last) is only half the story. And in a sense it's not even the real story.

For Marianne and Markus (the married couple), David (the mutual friend), Isabelle, and the other main characters don't, in a sense, even exist.

The film opens in the study of an elderly film director (played by Erland Josephson, close friend and colleague of Bergman, and the actor who played Joseph, the husband, in "Scenes from a Marriage"--where his character's wife's name, Marianne, matches that of the character played in this film by Lena Endre, in an unforgettable tour-de-force amounting to a two-and-a-half-hour monologue; Marianne, in the earlier film, reminiscent of this one in many ways, was played with similar bravado by this film's director, Liv Ullman, long-time associate of Bergman and for some years his lover).

The setting might well be Bergman's own study in his house on the remote Swedish island where he's lived in isolation for the past several years. The desk is slightly more cluttered than Bergman's own (which is adorned only with a clock and a photograph of his wife, with whom, he admits, he still has conversations, years after her death, which devastated him and helped drive him into "exile"). The room is almost bare otherwise, immaculately kept, furnished with a stereo, an armchair, a couple of lamps, a few photographs on the wall.

The exterior scenes were undoubtedly shot on location on the actual island.

The "director" is seated at his desk, talking aloud to an empty room, but addressing "Marianne." First as a shadow behind him, then fully visible seated on a window-seat, Marianne appears at his bidding. The movie goes on from there--sessions of talk in the director's study, the director mainly asking pointed questions, Marianne, and later David, sometimes hesitant or afraid to answer, but gradually revealing the painful facts of their excruciating misconduct.

Significantly, at a crucial point the director comforts each of these "imaginary" (but in the film very real) creatures by a caress to the cheek-as if wiping away a child's tears.

At the end of the turbulent story, he's left alone with his manuscript--and the dark, rolling sea. He walks slowly, awkwardly along the pebbly beach, lost in thought, just as Bergman does every day.

I believe that, thanks to the incalculable combined talent of Bergman and Ullman, this film offers the viewer catharsis, as in the Greek tragedies. I certainly have felt very different in the hours since viewing it. If "religious" leaders had the courage and honesty to offer their faithful the same hopeless but compassionate view of life as this film, and Bergman's own outlook, afford, then I think the world would be a much better place.

Ironically, Bergman's point of view is largely the result of a childhood spent under the heavy hand of Protestantism. (His father was a stern pastor.) But the result has been Protestantism with a twist: in a godless world, we doom ourselves to shame and horror, yet we can, somehow, still find the dignity to go on living one day at a time, doing the best we can with our pathetic lives.

And that's the best we can do. There is no redemption, not even in art: but there may be some clarification, if we're lucky.

In the end, all we had was ourselves and one another. And we did what we thought we had to do.
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A cautionary tale for our times
28 July 2004
My first viewing of "Fahrenheit 451" since its initial relase ca. 1966 was last night, via DVD. I highly recommend this DVD version--it includes excellent bonus material, including a moving account of composer Bernard Herrman's role in making the film.

I rated the film a "9" despite not being a big Truffaut fan; there's something about the "feel" of his movies that makes me fidgety and leaves me dissatisfied. But that same feel seems just right in this atypical piece of his--he felt he had failed to make the movie right, and he had difficulties with it that are explained in the bonus material. I think what resulted was an unsuspected and unintended success, instead.

Now more than ever in recent history, we face problems with individual liberties that are uncannily reflected in this film. Watch it as a cautionary tale, as a visually stunning experience, and as an example of some of the best film music ever composed: but watch it. I think you'll be glad you did.
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Peerless, heart-rending
16 July 2004
This film is tied with "Aparajito" (part two of the "Apu Trilogy") for my favorite film ever. Part three, "The World of Apu," seems a bit flawed by sentimentality and overly melodramatic qualities, but is still a masterpiece, if a more minor one. "Pather Panchali" is visual and moral poetry, and provides enough thought-provoking material to last a lifetime--or more. Meditation on the human truths exposed in these three films can be a very salutary thing. Satyajit Ray was one of the very great moral-centered filmmakers--which is not to say he's preachy or condescending, just the opposite: he does what great dramatists have always done from the Greeks through Shakespeare and onward, which is to search the human soul, compassionately revealing its weaknesses and strengths so that each member of the audience, if attentive, may learn more about himself or herself.

What nobler purpose could drama, or film, serve? It's a joy to see this done, and a privilege to witness the work of such a master.
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Oh, those subtitles...
15 July 2004
How memory plays tricks on us. I first saw "Alexander Nevsky" when a student at the University of Kansas, around 1960. Forty-some years later I find myself watching it again on DVD and almost unable to believe what my eyes are seeing: one of the most amateurish films I've ever viewed, and with by far the worst subtitles I've had to bear with--it's hard to believe these subtitles were produced, according to the message at the beginning of the film, in 1982.

But even without subtitles this film would fall flat, in my judgment. I admire someone with generous enough a spirit to be able to enjoy the film for its visual aspect, as at least one commenter did. I'm just not able to share that enthusiasm. I dearly wish I could, for I found both "Battleship Potemkin" and (especially) "Ivan the Terrible: Part I" to be excellent--of their type. Sorry, but for me "Alexander Nevsky" is just not excellent by any standard. I wonder what Prokofiev thought of it. His music is superb, but needs to be heard on its own, not in the context of this embarrassingly bad film.
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Magnolia (1999)
Shortest three hours ever
7 July 2004
"Magnolia" was recommended to me by a young Buddhist friend. I can see why, having seen it now twice (and enjoying it far more the second time, though I liked it a lot the first).

"Magnolia" amounts to a goofy three-hour meditation on coincidence and compassion. It also has the feel of a great labor of love, as though Mr. Anderson had been contemplating this project long and deeply. There are many experimental aspects to the film, and most of them work. The acting is nothing short of superb throughout, with the possible exception of Tom Cruise's work, which seemed to me merely better than usual for one of my least favorite performers.

The drugstore scene and many others are painful to watch, the emotions portrayed are so believable--and it's possible for a viewer of any breadth of life experience to identify painfully with many, if not most, of the characters, too. For this film is also a long meditation on human frailty.

I vote "ten." I don't see how a movie could be much better than "Magnolia," and I feel grateful to everybody involved in its making--even Mr. Cruise.
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