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Apocalypse Now (1979)
Redux vs. the original
I just saw "Apocalypse Now Redux" is a fine THX theater with a projectionist who actually knew what he/she was doing for a change. I'm already a big fan of the original, and I had a chance to see it on the big screen once before but that time it was a badly beaten up print. So it was certainly a joy seeing one of the most beautifully photographed color films ever made in a theater... Vittorio Storaro is simply a miracle worker. The sound design by Walter Murch is also quite possibly the finest accomplishment in the history of cinematic sound. Obviously any film buff must jump at the chance to see the film in a theater during this re-release... but it's an awful shame that the version is the "Redux" rather than the original. The original version is far and away the superior version.... so much so that it's hard for me to really recommend to someone who has never see the film to check out "Redux". The majority of the new scenes are superfluous. While a few scenes still contain the perfectly poetic combination of visuals and sound that is the film's finest asset, others are interesting only for those who have already seen the film but it kills the pacing for those who have not, and others still are simply bad scenes. Coppola, who was a much better director in the 1970's than he is today, should have trusted his initial instincts. I don't think any of the new scenes improved the film, while many really hurt it. (Spoilers from now on!!) The best of the new scenes are near the end with Brando's Kurtz having more screen time. Still, these new scenes deflate the enigmatic nature of the character. In the original Brando was always shot in shadow so we are left with a feeling that Kurtz is a projection of Willard's deepening madness. In "Redux" Kurtz appears fully lit and he becomes a more distinct character, and I don't think this is an improvement. There is also a scene on a French plantation which features a lengthy discussion of the politics of The Vietnam War. While it may be of interest to some for historical value, it is certainly a failure for it's dramatic value. Personally I'd be more interested in hearing about the Vietnamese point of view than the French point of view, something that the film never attempts to capture. This is followed by easily the worst of the new scenes, a romantic encounter between Willard and a woman on the plantation. It was a forced, bizarrely inappropriate scene that was scored by the worst music in the film. The opium smoking scene that follows is more bearable mostly because of a more appropriate tone and Mickey Hart's music ("Redux" did have more of his music and I kinda dug that), but it still added little other than some pretentious ramblings from the woman. Almost as bad as the seduction scene is a new scene with the Playboy bunnies, which criticizes the exploitation of women as sexual objects while it exploits the women as sexual objects. Overall, "Redux" is simply slower, less focused, and more pretentious than the original. Once again, it's a damn shame that they didn't just release a remastered version of the original for us to enjoy in a theater for all it's cinematic glory. Instead we are left the enjoy the technical marvel of a now deeply flawed film.
Rush Hour 2 (2001)
Tucker just got on my nerves
Rush Hour 2 had some things going for it.... Jackie Chan, as old as he's getting, still has some nifty moves.... this film had the best stunt work of Chan's three recent Hollywood productions but it still pales in comparison to his work in Hong Kong... but that's just the way it is. It's also his best English language performance.... his words are still difficult to understand but he is more relaxed delivering them. The two female leads, Zhang Ziyi and Roselyn Sanchez, are easy to look at and good in their roles, even if thy don't have much to do besides look good (Ziyi at least had lots of villianess death stares). And a word out to Lalo Schifrin's music, which was welcome in both Rush Hour films. But all that was battling Chris Tucker's raging mouth. I thought he was okay in the first one, but here his performance is as obnoxious as his performance in The Fifth Element. All he does is mouth off and act stupid. Especially in the Hong Kong scenes... he's so off the wall stupid and offensive that it was silly he didn't get a good clobbering... I'm almost disappointed he didn't get clobbered more through out the film. I found his Hong Kong scenes more difficult to bear than the Vegas scene Ebert brings up in his review. In that scene at least, his behavior had a purpose. Tucker nearly killed the film for me... obviously fans of Tucker won't find him as grating as I did... your enjoyment of this film basically depends on your ability to bear Chris Tucker.
The Innocents (1961)
Truly innovative, great horror film
I can't claim to have seen every single ghost story ever captured on film, though I believe I've seen all the majors... THE UNINVITED, THE HAUNTING, THE SHINING, etc. While all of those are very good films, none of them can compare to the near perfection of THE INNOCENTS. It really infuriates me that the film isn't more routinely recognized as one of the greatest horror films of all time. THE HAUNTING almost invariably appears on such lists, yet THE INNOCENTS is more sophisticated and frightening... and it was released two years before. I'd even wager that Robert Wise was influenced by this film. People always note that THE HAUNTING was smart enough not to show any ghosts and that the imagination makes the ghosts much scarier. While that is certainly valid, THE INNOCENTS proved that what you show can be equally frightening... and that is more impressive. What really strikes me about the film is how innovative it is, quite possibly as innovative as PSYCHO and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I can't think of any earlier films which used electronic distortion of sound to this affect... and that sort of thing now text book horror or thriller genre sound design. Yet, maybe only David Lynch (whose always done his own sound design) and composer Toru Takemitsu have been able to do it as well to this day. The film has not dated in the slightest... I can only imagine that it was too scary for audiences of the early sixties and that is the reason it isn't more widely hailed as a classic by critics today.
Hey, a smart thriller!
When was the last time I could say that? Of course this isn't a pull your hair out, bite your fingernails off kind of thriller. The tensions builds in a slow, methodical fashion. And on top of that, it never reaches a feverish climax. For those that needed that, don't worry, just wait for the Hollywood remake. I'm sure the suits will figure out a way for the characters to act so foolishly and implausibly that they wind up having to chase each other around in the dark with knives. But this film unfolds in a more natural, realistic manner (if you can accept the premise). It was refreshing to see that the characters weren't written as fools to advance the plot. That isn't to say that the film wouldn't have been better without a nail-biting set piece or two (the Hitchcock influence is obvious but Hitch would have given us the set pieces and he would have made them work) But I still prefer the genuine tension of this film to a thriller that is dumbed down to produce cheap thrills.
much stronger than the remake
TRAFFIK, though released 11 years before the over-rated Hollywood remake, is still far more insightful and relevant about the world of drug traffic. This despite the fact that the remake is heralded as a breakthrough in how people view the drug war. I saw the remake first, and after seeing this miniseries by distaste for the latter film grew considerably. It isn't just that it's twice as long and has that much more time to cover the issue, although that obviously helps. The dialogue is more efficient and powerful (compare Jack Lithgow's final speech to Douglas' drippy final speech). The scope is also far greater (the remake chooses to replace the story about the Pakistani farmer with the story of the Mexican cop... so we get more cops). The films handling of the Pakistani characters is affective and moving and doesn't have the naive gimicks of the remake's handling of the Mexican characters (the cinematography, for example). The film even had the guts to point out that Pakistani heroin traders get money from the American government to fight Russians (although I admit it's far less risky for a British production to make that case than it would be for a Hollywood production).
Ghetto Rhapsody (2001)
another frustrating independent film
Ghetto Rhapsody is an independent feature released through the First Rites video series, which releases films by first time directors. That director here is Darrel Simien, who's got much more talent than Kevin Smith. This film might draw comparisons to Smith's "Clerks" by those with no eye for composition, because it early on it features lots of hipster talk and black and white photography. But Simien actually has a clue where to place the camera and how to get natural performances out of the actors. "Ghetto Rhapsody" is way more ambitious than "Clerks", which is not a good thing. The problem is the script, which suffers from the "dummy-plot" syndrome... the story advanced only because some central characters are really stupid. Maybe that would be okay if they were written as fools, but, while they aren't necessarily supposed to be too bright, that isn't the case. The script offers a turning point where the central character does something so ludicrous, but the script doesn't offer any kind of motivation... even when another character later asks "why?" the dude just sits there looking like a fool. It's absolutely maddening, and there simply is no reason for anyone to continue caring about this guy. Not that every character in a film needs to act smartly and morally, but a script must provide motivation and attempt to make the audience understand why the character failed. It's too bad, because the film has got some nice acting and chemistry from the two leads. But the sloppy writing just kills it. Maybe the director will learn next time.
Politically Incorrect (1993)
great concept, hollow execution, but I watch anyway...
Politically Incorrect has a terrific concept: put together an eclectic panel of guests to debate politics and current events in an informal, loose manner. I usually watch the show if I'm watching TV when its on, but I still rarely find an episode very satisfying. The length of it is a problem... perhaps an hour would be too long for ABC but the half hour long format and frequent commercial breaks rarely allows the guests enough time to discuss anything in depth and they are constantly making half-points or no points. Of course the mix of entertainers and political figures unfortunately creates some bottle necks. The producers usually try to get at least one conservative on the show... since there are very few conservative entertainers, the episodes usually features entertainers representing the "liberal" side while politicians, consultants or radio talk show hosts represent the conservative. Not that this makes the debates slanted always, but the entertainers are usually more interested in sound bites than making valid points. I think the producers should make a better effort to get liberal guests who are more suited to political debates. There should also be more of an effort to get guests with different views. Bill Maher himself is too into himself to be focused on keeping the discussions focused and lively... there are way too many screaming fits. That all said, the show is pretty entertaining and worth watching... but the show has the potential to be a lot better... too bad Mahler isn't old enough to retire... the show could use a better host.
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
It was all right there, just bad execution
This movie has all the ingredients for a masterpiece. The story screams Kubrick and it's torture to think of what might have been had he lived to make it. Apparently Kubrick wanted Spielberg to make it before he died, and his family's been saying he would have loved it... but the dude was never perfect anyway. He would have made a better film. For the most part, the film Spielberg made was interesting and entertaining. Until the end, I was able to overlook the films flaws. The kid Haley Joel is a damn fine actor, and Jude Law also hits all the right notes as Gigolo Joe. Even Teddy is a better character than he has a right to be. The visuals are also always strong. The problems with the film are numerous. For all of the interesting issues it raises, it is never a serious film. The little logic gaps only bothered me a little bit, but they are there. (SPOILERS FROM NOW ON...) These robots can be submerged in water and frozen for prolonged periods of time, but they fall apart when they eat spinach?!? (Maybe the psychos at the Flesh Fair should have force fed them spinach....) For being such an advanced design, the David robot has got some awful bugs... his creators forgot to put in a fail safe that would prevent him from harming anyone? That may seem like nitpicking, and I was prepared to overlook it before the end. Apparently Spielberg wanted to create a fairy tale rather than a serious sci-fi film. I think he could have accomplished both. The ideas presented are too serious for this film to be just a simple fairy tale. But anyway, on to the end (again, SPOILERS)... I think the idea of the ending is perfect... but the execution was pitiful. My feeling is that the robots were lying to David and they gave him a day with a robot mother just like him. They had to make him believe that the robot was somehow really the person he was programmed to love, so they came up with some hoo hah about cloning (cleverly implementing the lock of hair from his memories) and lifting memories out of static electricity in the air or something (they were really using David's memory of his mother). And if they let the deception go on for too long, they run the risk of David finding it out, so they come up with more hoo hah to explain why it is only for a day. But was it intended that way? It makes a whole lot more sense then the straight reading of the end does, but so much of the film, as I've pointed out, doesn't make sense. The straight interpretation, as awful as it is, also fits with Spielberg's goal of making a fairy tale and not a serious sci-fi film. Still, I prefer to read it my way, but it still doesn't save the execution. The drippy sentimentality and awful dialogue and narration just kill the end, no matter how you interpret it. And while Spielberg may have thought he was being enigmatic by not hinting more blatantly that David was spending a day with a robot, I think in reality he was just afraid of the audience being mad that the robots lied to David. Allowing room for interpretation is all fine and well when all the possible interpretations are interesting. But when one interpretation is so bad and you actually have the characters explaining to another character that that's how it should be interpreted, you gotta provide more hints to the contrary. Hell, maybe Spielberg didn't intend for it to be a lie.
Not a bad film at all
I got to see this film because my friend wanted to see Dawson Creek stoned. She got what she wanted, the dude was in the movie for about two scenes he was high as a kite. But the movie isn't about that and it's not a stoner comedy as the ads make it out to be. This actually turned out to be the best movie that friend rented in a while, though that's not saying much. It's a drama about small town farmers who decide to grow marijuana to survive in troubled times. The best part of the film was the storylines involving the farmers themselves and the local Sherriff and DEA agent. Those storylines are realistic and provide interesting motivations and insights about marijuana production and the role of law enforcement. These farmers are not bad people and, while they may be a little naive, they are simply trying to survive when they're only other option would be losing their farms. While the DEA agent offers by the books interpretation of what they do, the Sherriff is conflicted because he knows why they are doing it and he wonders if a big pot bust would be bad for the small town's psyche.
The film bogs down with the story of the farmer's son, an innocent and earnest Will Horneff. This isn't a pro-legalization film, if anything the Horneff character is the moral voice of the film. His character is angry about his parents growing weed not because he's afraid of their well-being with the DEA sniffing around, but because he believes it's simply a bad thing to do, even though he hangs around kids who smoke it all the time. His intolerance grows as it get's closer to home. Even though much of the film tries (and succeeds) to be even-handed about the issue, in the end it has a pretty clear anti-weed stance. All the characters who do smoke weed are jerks. The dealers are jerks, even the sexist brother of the cute candy-striper. The only characters involved with it with any redeeming value in the film are the farmers, and of course, they are just doing it to survive. This is somewhat disappointing, whether or not it was a case of the film-makers not havingenough guts to remain neutral or it was the film-makers asserting their point of view. The film is strongest when it is neutral, but the fact that in the end the film isn't neutral doesn't kill it.
This film is very difficult to find in the West. It's not on video and you'd probably have to be lucky and find it at a film festival or a revival house. It's the first collaboration between director Teshigahara, writer Kodo Abe, and composer Toru Takemitsu, who went on to make the more widely available WOMAN IN THE DUNES and FACE OF ANOTHER. It's not quite as strong as WitD but is on par with FoA. This is a satire about a deserted town who's inhabitants are ghosts swallowed up by corruption. Teshigahara's direction is solid and Takemitsu comes up with another appropriately dissonant score balancing tension and humor. It's worth seeing for anyone interested in the three principal collaborators, particularly since opportunities to see it are rare. Takemitsu in particular could almost single handedly make a movie worth watching.