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Full Frontal (2002)
Interesting, but not wholly successful
Steven Soderbergh's FULL FRONTAL is an interesting film, with moments of brillance, humor and insight. It also has absolutely terrible moments. It's not altogether successful, but I admire Soderbergh for taking so many risks. I was pleasantly surprised by David Hyde Pierce. He is great in this film and delivers the best single performance in the film. Mary McCormack is also wonderful and Nicky Katt is hilarious as a devoted actor playing Hitler (which provides the films funniest scenes). The scenes that didn't work were all the Blair Underwood/Julia Roberts stuff. They are uninspired performances and drag on far too long. They're garbage. Another problem is Soderbergh's choice to shoot on digital video. Unless you know what you're doing on video (like Harmony Korine or Lars von Trier), it's not a format that should be used. Parts of FULL FRONTAL are so dark and blurry you can't tell what's happening. Maybe this was Soderbergh's intention, but it's distracting. I like movies that take risks, even if all the risks don't pay off. FULL FRONTAL is a movie like that. It has inspired moments, but put together they don't all add up. This is closer to SCHIZOPOLIS than any other Soderbergh film. He takes risks that will infuriate many viewers, but I admired it.
Domestic Disturbance (2001)
Promising start, bad finish.
Despite the good cast and director, DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE is nothing special. I liked how the movie started. John Travolta plays a boat builder in a small town. He is divorced from his wife (alcoholism is hinted at here, but never really stated) and his son is having trouble adjusting to his mother's new boyfriend, Vince Vaughn. At their wedding, Vaughn's old friend, Steve Buscemi, shows up and you know that Vaughn is not as perfect as he seems. The actors are perfectly cast. Travolta is good at playing the good guy, Vaughn good at playing the creep and Buscemi is great as playing an even creepier creep. However, once Vaughn's character murders Buscemi (in front of the kid of course) the movie starts to go downhill. We know the kid is telling the truth and Travolta knows he's telling the truth. It's frustrating sitting in the theater as no one else will believe him. The ending feels rushed. It's like the studio told them your movie can only be 90 minutes long, so once they hit 80, they just threw something together. The ending just doesn't work. Harold Becker, the director, has made wonderful thrillers before (SEA OF LOVE and THE ONION FIELD come to mind), but here he's just phoning it in. The movie's on autopilot.
The One (2001)
I was not impressed.
Given the level of talent working on THE ONE, I was disappointed. James Wong and Glen Morgan are responsible for some of the very best episodes of THE X-FILES ever and their first film, FINAL DESTINATION, was quite good. THE ONE on the other hand is not. I like Jet Li. His early films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (and its sequels) and FIST OF LEGEND rank among the best action movies of the last decade. I quite enjoyed KISS OF THE DRAGON, an extremely violent action film from earlier this year. That one had preposterous logic, but at least it was consistant logic. THE ONE is not quite sure what it believes. It goes back and forth on what will happen if there is only one Jet Li left. The action scenes look cool, but still I was disappointed in them. They use special effects to slow everything down. When I watch Jet Li kick someones ass, I want to see him do it at full speed (although I admit I liked the motorcycle thing). THE ONE does not succeed on any of the levels it is trying to.
Interesting, enjoyable film.
K-PAX is a enjoyable, thought provoking movie. Kevin Spacey plays a man who might be an alien, or he might be insane. Jeff Bridges plays the doctor whose job it is to cure Spacey of his delusions. Every scene between these two great actors is perfect. They have interesting, intelligent conversations, so much more thought provoking than most mainstream films. The problems with K-PAX lie in the subplots. I am so tired of seeing men's wives in movies whine about how their husbands are never home. It's annoying. Cut out every scene with Bridge's wife whining and the movie is much better. The other patients in the mental ward with Spacey are cookie cutter characters. These are the same people we have met in every mental ward since ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. Cut down on those scenes. Despite these flaws, K-PAX is still a very good movie. Spacey and Bridges are perfect. They have fun playing off each other. The ending is sure to confuse some people (I know one guy I work with told me he thought K-PAX sucked after I told him to go see it, because he didn't get the ending). The ending is the type of ending I love. It lets the audience decided what to think. I wish more movies trusted their audience as much as K-PAX does.
BANDITS is a lot of fun. The story of two bank robbers who are completely different. Bruce Willis plays the tough guy. He's big, has a violent temper. Billy Bob Thornton is the twitchy hypochrondriac who is scared of everything (even antique furniture). Together the become the most successful bak robbers in American history. Everything is going good until Cate Blanchatt, a bored housewife enters their lives and ruins everything. There is nothing really new in BANDITS, its all just done very well. Director Barry Levinson finds the right note between comedy and drama and the performances are perfect. Despite the fact that is stars Bruce Willis, BANDITS is not an action movie. It's a story of three strange characters on the road. The just happen to rob banks. Willis is wonderful. I'm starting to think I underestimated for years. He plays the character perfectly. Blanchatt proves one again that she is one of the best actresses of her generation, playing a part completely different from anything she has done before. But the star of the show is Billy Bob Thornton. What a tremendous actor this guy is. His best roles to date have been as simpletons (SLING BLADE and A SIMPLE PLAN). But here, he's the most intelligent person in the film. It fits him. His outrageous phobias are funny, but they fit him. BANDITS is just a lot of fun to watch.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Perhaps the best western ever made.
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD Along with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS, Howard Hawkes' RED RIVER, Robert Altman's McCABE AND MRS MILLER and Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, THE WILD BUNCH is one of the greatest acheivements in western moviemaking. It is a violent story of an old gang in the late 1910's who have outlived there time period. The wild west is dead, and yet they go on living. They travel to Mexico, where hopefully they will find a place to belong. But it's useless. All the find is a violent military government and sad people. William Holden plays Pike, the leader of the gang who rob a bank and flee to Mexico. Robert Ryan is a former gang member, hired to hunt them done. These two great actors give perhaps their best performances in this film. There are many great moments here. The opening robbery, the bridge blowing up and of course the final showdown. Before the showdown takes place, a quieter, scene takes place. Pike, sitting in a room of a whorehouse, looks at her and her baby. He then throws all his gold on the floor and walks over the next room where two other members are. He says two words "Let's go" and they both know immediately what he wants. They then walk outside, where Ernest Borgnine is waiting. One look at Holden and he knows what they have to do. The following shots are quiet, as these four men walk down a dusty street, towards their deaths. This is a sequence of devastating emotional power, matched by the closing battle and then the final scenes in the movie, where Robert Ryan, sits outside of town thinking for hours. He should have been there and died with his friends, not been trying to catch them. This is undoubtably the best movie master filmmaker Sam Peckinpah ever made. A violent, emotional masterpiece.
Ride the High Country (1962)
A great film.
WARNING POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is one of the best westerns ever made. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, this is more of a classic style western than a Peckinpah western (see WILD BUNCH or PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID). It is the sad story of two aged gunfighters (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott) hired to transport gold. McCrea has honor left in his old age and wants to do a good job. Scott, tired of having to whore his old reputation just wants to steal the gold. These two old friends clash. There are many fine moments in this film, like when McCrea, too embarrassed to admit he needs glasses to read, goes into the bathroom to read over the contract. Or after McCrea ties Scott's hands together and Scott pleads with McCrea to undo his hands for the night because "I don't sleep to well anymore". These men reminded me of the outlaws in Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH, because like them, they are past their prime and have outlived there time. They are men with few equals, because everyone else they know is already dead. The final scene in the movie, where McCrea is dying and says to Scott "I don't want them to see this" referring to the two youngsters along for the ride is one of the saddest, most poignant moments in any western. This is a great film.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
A great film (that is, if you get the director's cut)
Sam Peckinpah was disgusted with the version of PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID that was released in 1973. The studio took the movie away from him and recut it. This happened more then once to Peckinpah and it probably contributed to his heavy alcholism which killed him at the age of 59. The original version of the film (that is the one released in 1973) is awkawardly paced, and doesn't fully explain the things that need to be explained. The director's cut, now available on video and I hope soon on DVD, is a great film. The restored material helps to clarify everything that was foggy in the original. Like most of Peckinpag's films, this is a violent story. Like THE WILD BUNCH it has a outlaw (Kris Kristofferson) being pursued by an old member of his gang (James Coburn). What's interesting, is that Peckinpah does not make either of his main characters all that likable. Both are violent men, who will kill without feeling (that is until they have to face each other). Peckinpah offers no easy answers or standard Western moralizing here. It's an honest film. Those who complain about the historical inaccuracies (and I'm sure that some morans do), have missed to point entirely. It's not a film about what really happened between these two men, but a story of what happened between these two characters. In that respect, it is a great film.
Straw Dogs (1971)
A violent masterwork.
WARNING SPOILERS MAY BE AHEAD Sam Peckinpah may just be the most sexist director in movie history. Alfred Hitchcock is a close second, but he just liked to humilate his female characters, wheras Peckinpah views them as man's downfall. Consider that most his female characters from THE WILD BUNCH to PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID to BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA are all whores. The ones that aren't like Ali McGraw in THE GETAWAY, are willing to whore themselves to get what they want. In STRAW DOGS, Dustin Hoffman plays an American professor who moves to his wife's small England town to live peacefully. Unfortunatly, the local men, all of whom seem to know Hoffman's wife intimately, insult his masculinity and harass him constantly. Hoffman is terrfied by his attackers, but consider the reaction of his wife. When the attackers break into their house, to rape his wife, she goes along with it. There are no screams of terror or attempt to fight them off. Instead, she's a willing participant. The closing scenes in the film which are mercilessly violent, are therefore strange. Peckinpah has done something different here, along the lines of John Ford's THE SEARCHERS or Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER. He's protecting a woman, who herself does not want to be protected. There is a difference however. This time, Hoffman is in danger too, something Wayne wasn't in SEARCHERS of DeNiro in TAXI DRIVER. Peckinpah has made a complex film, that challegnes his audience to evaluate everything they have seen in the movie carefully. Peckinpah was dismissed by feminist critics as sexist and vile, a man who hated women. This may well be true, but what interesting films he made on that theme. His women always love the main characters (remember the sad scene in ALFREDO GARCIA, where Oates' girlfriend is willing to be raped to protect him) yet they always seem like a lot of trouble. Peckinpah is a master film maker, and STRAW DOGS is one of his great works.
One of Peckinpah's best!
Roger Ebert recently added BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA to his list of the great movies. Having never seen the film, I decided to go rent it. It is a strange, warped, violent masterpiece. Peckinpah handles violence in his films better than any other American director in history. His films are about violent men reaching the end of their lives and waiting to die. In ALFREDO GARCIA Warren Oates plays a piano player in Mexico who journeys with his hooker girlfriend to find the corpse of Alfredo Garcia so he can cut his head off and sell it for 10 thousand dollars. Along the way they get stopped by bikers who want to rape his friend and are followed by other bounty hunters. Once he has the head and his girlfriend is killed, the film becomes more and more violent as he tries to track down who wants to film. On the surface, ALFREDO GARCIA may seem like a typical, albeit extremely violent, road movie. But it's deeper than that. It is the story of a man at the end of his rope, trying to get revenge. Oates is amazing. His performance is tough as nails. This film is a forgotten masterpiece, forgotten probably because it was so hated when it was originally released. Watching it now, it stands among RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, STRAW DOGS and THE WILD BUNCH as one of Peckinpah's greatest acheivements.