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Requiem for a Dream (2000)
technically brilliant, otherwise mediocre
**Warning: spoilers ahead**
At basis, this is a pretty simple sort of drug film. It depicts the lives of four people, and how drugs are instrumental in their downfall. One loses sanity; another loses innocence and self-respect; another loses freedom; another loses an arm. The message is hardly subtle: drugs can mess you up. Well, duh.
Three of these characters fall into destructive drug use in the ordinary, expected way: through escalating recreational use. More interesting is Ellen Burstyn's character, who instead naively allows herself to become dependent on amphetamines in order to lose weight for a television appearance -- an appearance we, as the audience, of course know will probably never happen, but which gives her otherwise meaningless life new hope.
It's a shame, really, that her character wasn't given primary focus in this film. For her, drugs are simply the incidental means to fulfilling some deeper desire rather than an end in themselves. She doesn't self-destruct because she wants to get high, but simply because she wants some reason to feel alive again. Much more could have been done with this idea if the movie hadn't been too busy showing the other characters' more routine kinds of addiction.
This movie really doesn't stand out as a particularly poignant or interesting drug film, then -- certainly nothing to rival, say, Traffic. Where it does stand out is in technical excellence. The filmmaking is so perfect it is nearly sublime; if the movie fails in having a new or interesting message, it certainly succeeds in imparting its message with stylistic force. If for no other reason, Requiem deserves to be seen by anyone who loves a well-made film.
inconsistent quality throughout
In almost every respect, this series oscillates between very good and laughably awful.
Take the special effects, for example. The space scenes, Paul's escape in the ornithopter, the desert storms, and many of the worms are done very well -- so well that you'd almost forget you're watching a made-for-TV movie done on a shoestring budget. Other effects, though, are terrible even by TV standards. The trippy water-of-life scenes come to mind here, or the CGI desert mouse, or the fact that the backdrops to many scenes (especially in the desert and Fremen camps) are so clearly fake that it's obvious the actors are just walking around in front of large paintings.
The same goes for the acting. The actor playing Paul here does an excellent job early in the series, when playing the hesitant, promising heir-apparent; but later, when he becomes the Fremen messiah, he delivers his prophesies and speeches with all the power, subtlety, and pacing of a high school drama class dropout.
And ditto the casting. The Gurney Halleck actor is a perfect choice, as is the Baron Harkonen. On the other hand, the actress playing Paul's mother is completely wrong for the part -- she is supposed to be a powerful Bene Gesserit sage and ducal concubine, but seems to look and act more like a harried housewife. Feyd Harkonen, on the rare occasions when he's not in the middle of killing someone, is inexplicably effeminate.
And then there's the fight scenes. Some of the knife-fights and gun-battles are very cool, particularly early in the movie. There are, however, FAR too many shots of people being flung into the air by explosions -- I think half of the series' budget must have gone into pyrotechnics and trampolines. The final climactic fight scene between Paul and Feyd also often looks extremely fake, as though the two actors are trying a little too hard not to hurt each other.
You get the idea. Overall, I'd say this movie will be of interest to fans of Frank Herbert's novel, who will enjoy seeing their favourite scenes enacted. It also may be of interest to fans of David Lynch's version of Dune, who will derive endless pleasure from nitpicking the differences between the two (which, suffice it to say, are huge). Just about anyone else will probably find more interesting and exciting fare elsewhere.
The Pledge (2001)
slow-paced and cerebral
It's easy to be disappointed with this movie. It sets itself up as a crime drama, but never really delivers the expected outcome; and, indeed, the focus for most of the film is detective Jerry Black himself and not the crime. If you watch this one expecting a thriller, expect to be bored.
What this film is really about is a psychological study of obsession and its effects on people. This is done with a great deal of subtlety and insight, although some of the techniques used here struck me as too formulaic (like when Jerry constantly hears significant bits of dialogue in his head). If you find this sort of in-depth character-oriented drama interesting, you will enjoy the film despite its very slow pace.
Fong Sai Yuk (1993)
lots of flaws, but far from terrible
Both the plot and the fight scenes from this movie stretch credibility a bit too much, even by the decidedly low standards of kung fu movies. I know Crouching Tiger was unbelievable too... but at one point in this movie two people fight while standing on a guy's outstretched arms, for pity's sake.
Having said that, this movie is well worth watching for the action sequences. The camerawork in the film is a bit irritating -- all the quick-cuts designed to highlight the action tend to be confusing and distracting -- but Jet Li is clearly at his best here.
There's also quite a few funny bits in the movie, mostly courtesy of the hero's wisecracking kung-fu mom... and there's lots of amusing inaccuracies and anachronisms. (I'm pretty sure the ancient Chinese didn't have guillotines.) Suspend disbelief and you'll enjoy it all the more.
Red Planet (2000)
underrated; worth watching
Although it's usually compared unfavourably with Mission to Mars (which in turn is compared unfavourably with 2001), Red Planet was far better than I expected. The special effects were excellent. The cast worked well together. The story kept me interested.
The major problem with Red Planet was that it tried to be too many movies at once. It's at basis a crisis movie -- as in Apollo 13, absolutely everything that can go wrong for the intrepid astronauts does -- but it tries to introduce *too many* crises. First it's the breakdown of the main ship; then it's an injury; then it's a murder; then it's lack of oxygen; then it's communications; then it's a killer robot; then it's alien lifeforms... and so forth.
Whereas Mission to Mars had a fairly clearly-defined focus (the unknown force that wiped out the original mission) Red Planet seems to keep leaping from problem to problem just as a way of keeping the excitement level up. In this respect it succeeds, but the drawback is that every aspect of the plot gets only brief and superficial treatment.
Still, this movie is worth your while. It's expertly filmed, and always nice to look at (yes, even when Carrie Anne Moss is off-screen). And although the plot may leave you slightly confused and dissatisfied, you won't likely be bored.
sometimes funny, but mostly painful
I should admit from the start that I'm not a huge fan of musicals. I was forced to watch this movie by my girlfriend, possibly in retaliation for my having made her watch three Jackie Chan movies in a row. So, take this review for whatever it's worth.
Grease's status as a classic is, for me, quite perplexing. It's just a formulaic love story set in the 50s around a bunch of high school students (most of which, incidentally, appear to be at least in their mid 30s -- some, like Riz, look about 50). Although funny in parts -- the Frankie Avalon song, and the sequence where John Travolta tries to be a jock come to mind -- it largely just consists of stilted, cheesy dialogue and some of the lamest songs imaginable. ("Ramalamadingdong", anyone?) This movie might work if seen as an over-the-top satire, I guess, but that doesn't make it any less painful to watch.
As a mode of vengeance for girlfriends, then, this movie rates a 10. Guys beware.
The Basketball Diaries (1995)
overwrought morality play
Heroin is bad. Quitting school is bad. Do heroin, and quit school, and you'll end up a hopeless loser. If you understand those two points, then you already know everything The Basketball Diaries is trying to tell you. If you think the drug issue is any more complex than that, then prepare to be disappointed by this movie.
The movie started off somewhat promisingly, with a look at the lives of Jim Caroll and his friends (as interpreted by the moviemakers, of course). The first part is in turns funny and sad, and is generally realistic enough to be poignant.
As soon as Leonardo diCaprio is forced to play someone spiralling into a nightmare of addiction, however, everything goes downhill. If this movie has any subtle or interesting point to make about drug abuse or society, it forgets it here. It just goes back and forth between silly drug-induced dreams and numerous scenes of petty crime, filthy rooms, and Jim looking increasingly corpselike.
The main reason why this part of the movie seems so absurd is the performance of diCaprio himself. The scenes where he tries to get money from his mother, and where he goes through withdrawal, were so hammily overacted that I stopped being shocked and started laughing. Then I stopped laughing and started wanting to hit the mute button. There is one scene where he seems like he does nothing but moan "maaaaaaaaaa... wahhhhh" for minutes on end. There is a difference between drama and melodrama. It's clear that this movie can't resist portraying the latter at the expense of the former.
Anyhow, if you want a movie that will challenge you to think about the drug issue, watch Traffic. If you want an after-school special, watch the Basketball Diaries.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
The cool thing about Mission Impossible II is that it's a John Woo movie. The dumb thing about it is that it's *just another* John Woo movie. The first MI movie was great because of a complex plot, combined with great action scenes. This movie is nothing but action scenes. Change the setting and the actors, and half the scenes in this movie could be substituted with ones from Face/Off (and vice versa) and you'd never be able to tell the difference.
Fans of John Woo will find a lot to like here. It's got all his trademarks -- slow motion shots of people walking in the wind, fight scenes where everyone spins around a lot, and so forth. For that matter, fans of action movies in general will like it too. But if you like this movie, it's not *because* you liked the first one. If you watch it, watch it for brainless action. If you go in expecting a engaging or challenging plot, get ready to be as disappointed as I was.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Definition of a cult classic: a movie that never quite appealed to mainstream taste, but for some reason really appeals to a certain kind of person. With that in mind: Evil Dead is only going to be a cult classic for you if you're the certain kind of person that enjoys constant, gratuitous, vomit-inducing gore.
Basic plotline: some teenagers go to stay in a creepy cabin in the woods. They discover an ancient Sumerian book -- the Necronomicon -- and unwittingly raise some evil spirits. And then everybody gets possessed and dies, with the sole exception of the hero. Wait, did I say "dies"? I should have said "gets torn limb from limb, gushes every conceivable kind of bodily fluid (and some inconceivable kinds), and just generally manages to perish in the most protracted and horrible way anyone could imagine".
Now, I have no basic objection to gore. In a good horror movie, the gore just highlights the terror, and adds a visually shocking element to it. But in this movie, there's really no suspense to go along with it; apart from a few false scares at the start, and some startling zombie attacks, it's really just constant, on-camera violence. I finished this movie feeling more ill than terrified.
And humour? Well, unless you find something intrinsically hilarious about zombies chewing their own arms off, inflicting gaping wounds with pencils, and vomiting blood from neck-stumps, don't count on it. Even Bruce Campbell isn't any fun in this movie; he's basically here only to be terrorized, look put-upon, and get drenched with blood. This isn't the hilarious, manic Ash that makes the later movies worthwhile.
Wo hu cang long (2000)
not just another kung fu movie
It's almost impossible to find good things to say about this movie that haven't already been said hundreds of times. But I'll say them anyhow: it is epic, exhilirating, engaging, and utterly beautiful.
The major thing to understand about this film is that it is not really a kung fu movie in the traditional sense you'd expect. There's fight scenes, of course -- and they are beyond spectacular -- but for once they complement and enhance the storyline rather than replacing it. This is not another "hero learns kung fu, conquers all foes" movie. It is a Chinese fairytale; a Taoist parable writ large. Expect no simplistic good vs. evil tale here. You'll spend too much time trying to figure out who the "hero" is supposed to be.
Just one further note: don't be put off by the fact that the movie is subtitled. Some people refuse to watch foreign-language films just because they feel that having to read the subtitles is too distracting; but not to worry, by the time ten minutes have passed you'll have forgotten that the actors are speaking Mandarin at all.