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Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)
Fantastic to look at, but...
Over the past couple of years, I've made it my mission to watch many of the most famous films ever made. And while I've greatly enjoyed some of these films, others have struck me as overrated drags.
"Battleship Potemkin" falls somewhere in the middle of the scale. I admire the film for its groundbreaking direction and sequences of extreme suspense and horror. But, on the other hand, much of the film is a little ... dull. Indeed, my girlfriend is now snoozing heavily in the next room, having passed out during the long sequence of the Potemkin approaching the rest of the fleet. (I suspect that I liked the film a little more than she did. Bless.)
Now, I should unpack what I mean by "dull," because I hate it when people are imprecise with their criticisms. I quite like a lot of films that can be construed as "dull" -- Twilight Samurai, Alphaville, Tokyo Story, and so on. But these films aren't boring to me; they're paced in such a way as to invite contemplation rather than generate excitement. And because I care about the characters in these films, this pacing doesn't bother me at all; indeed, it draws me into the story even more deeply.
The trouble with "Battleship Potemkin" is that it doesn't have great characters; nor does it really invite you to contemplate anything. At heart, it's an action movie designed to appeal to the most basic of emotions, not your brain. So, in the slow stretches of the film between action segments, "Potemkin" sort of grinds down. This problem doesn't spoil the film completely, but it does in my opinion prevent it from being an all-time classic.
So why did I give it an "8"? Because it truly is fascinating to watch. Because the Odessa steps sequence is rightly celebrated (and the imitations aren't as good). Because the propaganda bits are actually sort of interesting. And, of course, it's full of memorable images that are both beautiful and terrifying.
And yet, I can't help being a little annoyed at film critics for over-praising films that were groundbreaking for purely technical reasons. Even though film is a largely visual medium, shouldn't we be more invested in plot, characters, and themes than in novel use of cuts/dissolves/montage/etc.? There's more to movies than clever trickery with the camera -- or there should be, anyway.
In short, "Battleship Potemkin" looks great and is a fascinating piece of film history, but it might not entertain you, and it almost certainly won't enlighten you. I liked it fine, but I can think of quite a few movies I'd rather watch -- many of them foreign, and most of them slow-paced.
All the Real Girls (2003)
All the Real Bores
Nothing grates quite so much as a "realistic" film that contains practically no realism at all.
To its credit, "All the Real Girls" really *tries* to be true-to-life. But the dialog and performances don't convince. Characters in this film are constantly doing and saying quirky, bizarre things that real people never do or say.
For example, in one of many strange "romantic" scenes, the female lead says to her boyfriend: "I had a dream last night that you were growing a garden on a trampoline. And I was so happy that I invented peanut butter." So, what are we to make of this bizarre nugget of dialog? Is it "sentimental"? Is it "deep"? And is it the kind of thing that I would say on a date? (I'll answer the last question for you -- "no.") It's none of those things, it's just ridiculous ... the product of a strange, artificial mode of speech peculiar to American art-house movies.
In another weird moment, our romantic leads are standing in an inexplicably deserted bowling alley (did they break in after hours?) The guy says to his girlfriend something like, "I wanna dance, but I don't want you to watch me. Turn around." So she turns around. And then he dances like a doofus. Do even goofy teenagers behave like this on dates? And am I really supposed to believe that this awkward-as-anything guy is a ladies' man, as we are repeatedly told (but not actually shown)?
Other exciting scenes involve a lengthy discussion of what's better to eat for breakfast, pancakes or eggs; a woman in a clown costume declaring something like "I used to be beautiful, but now I am this clown"; and a scuffle in which an unimportant character gets beaten severely and choked, and is then totally forgotten about by all the other characters, the director, and the screenwriter. One of many strange lapses in a film of lapses.
So, if your idea of a good time is to spend almost two hours in indie movie hell, watching a non-plot crawl along at the pace of a half-dead snail, while two superficial and thinly drawn characters alternate between flirting ridiculously and exchanging depressing anecdotes on their path to falling in a desperately superficial form of love ... well then, this may be the motion picture for you. I, for one, will be watching something like "Smiles of a Summer Night" or "Terror of Mechagodzilla" instead.
Petey Wheatstraw (1977)
I admit it ... I was wrong about Petey Wheatstraw
Years ago, I wrote a hostile review of Petey Wheatstraw for IMDb. What can I possibly say to justify that? I was young, and foolish. And the greatness of this film had not yet revealed itself to me.
Well, "greatness" is too strong a word. Petey Wheatstraw is not great, but rather "amusing" and somewhat "crazy." If you permit yourself to be drawn into the film's wacky universe, you may have a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience.
Petey Wheatstraw, in short, is about a kung-fu fighting stand-up comedian who makes an unwise bargain with Lucifer. It's part comedy movie, part horror movie, part gangster movie, part sex movie, and part kung-fu epic with intentionally (I hope) bad choreography. The film bounces breathlessly between these genres, especially in the early scenes, which are disorienting and seem totally unconnected. But soon enough, the story settles into a kind of weird rhythm.
Needless to say, the production values are poor (Lucifer's demon minions are men in ballet tights and Halloween masks), the editing is choppy, and the acting is of highly variable quality. The script, however, has a weird poetry to it. The comedy dialog, though extremely crass, is sometimes really funny, and some of the "character" scenes when Petey and Lucifer get together are bizarrely effective.
Now I feel all weird, because I'm trying to defend what is, in essence, an extremely tacky bad movie. But it's a *witty* bad movie, and I can appreciate the effort that went into its production. And the film undeniably captures a time -- a place -- a bizarreness. It's sort of hypnotic.
Let me put it this way: I bought Petey Wheatstraw as a bargain DVD years ago, hated it on the initial viewing, and almost pawned it. But I never did get rid of that DVD. It survived several years of DVD trading-in, numerous changes of address on my part, and other seismic events in my life that might easily have caused Petey Wheatstraw's demise. But that DVD survived through it all; I still have the movie, still think about it sometimes, still smirk when I see it on my shelf. And that's the best endorsement I can give it.
Proof that you can't go home again...
The Alien films are science fiction classics. Well, the first three are classics - the fourth one is some kind of bad dream.
The Predator films are...good fun. I like the first one especially.
Now then, the Aliens vs. Predator films are simply a disgrace. I understand that many sci-fi fans always wanted to see these legendary creatures fight on screen, but to be honest the idea has always held little appeal to me. It's just a sign, really, that both movie franchises are lacking in inspiration and, in fact, limping towards utter extinction. Like embarrassing, drunken party guests, the Aliens and the Predators don't know that it's time to *leave*, already, so our pleasant 1980s memories of them can remain untarnished.
So, about this movie in particular. The direction, by the brothers Strause (?), is awful. Scene follows upon scene with little or no logical connecting material between them. The cutting is abrupt. The lighting is dark and murky, to the point that almost nothing can be seen - not the Aliens, not the Predators, and not even Reiko Aylesworth looking foxy.
Worse yet, the fights - when they're even visible - are boring. What's so great about watching Predators ping Aliens from great distances?
Then there's the characters. You know, I used to think it would be interesting to see an Alien movie set on Earth, but I never paused to consider that such a setting would involve more boring humans cluttering up the joint, such as a beleaguered small-town sheriff (yawn), a reformed crook (ho-hum), and a hot high school girl who takes off some - but not all - of her clothes (yay, lingering sexism!) I couldn't get invested in any of them, so when they died - often in the gross and exploitative manner of teenagers in a slasher movie - I cared not.
One wonders if Shane Salerno cobbled together this script in a weekend. One wonders why the studio approved it. One wonders why there isn't a more serious effort being made to revive the Alien franchise. If somebody could bribe Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver to make another one of these movies, we could have another four-star classic on our hands. As it is, we have...this. One wonders, one wonders.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
The weakest link
Ugly. Slow. Tacky. Stupid. I have a truckload of negative adjectives that I feel like applying to Alien: Resurrection, and I think they all fit.
I know some people don't share my appreciation for Alien 3, but good grief, I think it's miles better than this installment. Indeed, Alien: Resurrection strikes me as one of those train-wreck movies that leaves the average viewer scratching her head, wondering why a studio would ever give the green light to such a misguided project.
Alien 3, unpopular though it was, brought the Alien saga to a very definite close by killing off the protagonist, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. In this film, Ripley is not-very-convincingly brought back to life as a clone. Indeed, this whole movie focuses on the cloning issue to the exclusion of all else; it's clearly trying to say something about genetic manipulation, or parenthood, or whatever, but the message (if any) is lost in a quagmire of grossness and bad writing.
Speaking of bad writing, the movie's scriptwriter was none other than Joss Whedon, he of "Buffy" fame. I gather that Whedon has sort of disowned Alien: Resurrection because he doesn't like the way his script was realized, but I'd argue that the script was fundamentally unsound to begin with. It's loaded with techno-babble, profanity and pilfered ideas, and populated by a cast of seedy, cardboard and thoroughly unlikable characters. Apart from Ripley, the only character who gets any development is Winona Ryder's cyborg-lady, but Ryder's acting stinks and her motivations aren't that interesting anyway.
Really, this film is the worst possible blend of elements from previous Alien movies. Unlike the first Alien and Alien 3, it lacks the presence of a single, unstoppable, awesome alien creature - and unlike Aliens, it lacks the excitement of a whole hoard of alien creatures. In Alien: Resurrection, there are 12 *somewhat stoppable* aliens - ho, hum. So we haven't got the sheer terror value of the first film here, or the raw energy of the second. We've got 12 aliens milling around yet another boring spaceship setting. What an ill-conceived idea.
There's only one really good scene in this film - the underwater action segment, which is more sophisticated than any of the battles in the other Alien films. But since I don't care about the characters, I don't care about who dies in that scene. And, apart from that one exciting bit, the film has few merits, choosing to get mired again and again in disgusting concepts and disgusting imagery of mutants, clones, and a half-Alien half-human creature with saggy boobs. Gross.
If the tagline for the second film was "this time, it's war," the tagline for this one should have been, "this time, bring a barf bag." Or, better yet, "this time...stay home." Atrocious stuff.
Beautiful. Romantic. Awesome.
"Samurai Rebellion" is a feminist action movie. I find that almost unbelievable, since feminism and macho sensibilities usually don't go hand-in-hand, but here they blend together perfectly. That's what makes this film such a rewarding and unique viewing experience.
I won't delve too much into the plot details, but suffice to say that the film concerns some rebellious samurai (as if you couldn't tell!) who are dedicated to protecting a wronged woman, the Lady Ichi. Thankfully, Lady Ichi is no cardboard character - she's as intelligent and passionate as she is beautiful, and her interactions with the samurai are fascinating. So, as the samurai fall in love with her and line up to protect her, the audience falls for her, too. I have to give a lot of credit to actress Yôko Tsukasa for making her character so sympathetic.
The samurai are a strong point, too. The younger one, Yogoro, is played with sincerity and charisma by Takeshi Katô. And the older samurai, Isaburo, is played by that incomparable icon of Japanese cinema, Toshirô Mifune. When he's acting in Kurosawa films, I sometimes find Mifune a little hammy, but in this film he gives an extremely dignified and simply wonderful performance. (I particularly like his little laugh of disdain, which he unleashes when his superiors make unreasonable requests - "ho ho ho!")
Of course, even the best actors in the world need the support of a strong director, and they've got that support here. Unlike Kurosawa, director Masaki Kobayashi doesn't add much Western-style "flair" to his movies; instead, his films (so far as I can tell) are more starkly beautiful and gradually paced. Some might argue that Kobayashi's style is actually a little dull, but I've been conditioned to slowly paced foreign films and I don't mind it a bit. In fact, I appreciate the way that Kobayashi builds up tension and then hits the audience with a really satisfying payoff.
In short, everything about this movie works - the script, the actors, the design, the direction. It features a lovely romance, some cool (if stylized) action, and genuinely surprising plot twists. There's some explicit violence towards the end, too, but unlike most American films, "Samurai Rebellion" doesn't glorify combat. Fighting is depicted as a destructive last resort.
I was perhaps being a little glib when I described the movie as feminist - a Western viewer might not recognize it as such - but it certainly does feature one of the strongest and most compelling female characters that I've encountered in a long time. For that reason alone, this is worth seeing. But the film's many other virtues are impressive, too, and have helped to propel "Samurai Rebellion" right to the top of my list of favorite movies.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Cute but trite
Kung Fu Panda is a cool-looking movie, and fun, and unlike many summer movies, it did not annoy or offend me. So yeah, I'm sort of glad that I saw it.
That said, though, I would've appreciated a more original script. As it stands, Kung Fu Panda feels like it was cobbled together from the leftovers of 100 other movies involving chosen warriors, sagely mentors, crises of confidence and spooky supervillains. I recognized scenes lifted from Star Wars, from various karate movies, and even from the long-forgotten (or so I thought) Judge Dredd! This is not exactly a trailblazing film, in other words.
Also, I actually disapproved of Kung Fu Panda's underlying message about always "following your dream," even if it's (a) utterly implausible and (b) involves telling your family to buzz off. You see, at the start of the film, the panda is working in his dad's noodle shop, but he dreams of being a karate master - even though he's lazy and fat. So, in order to become the hero, the panda has to reject his father's life's work and, through no particular effort of his own, become a super-powerful warrior.
Call me Mr. Cranky-Pants, but I think that message might actually be bad for little kids. The film, in short, tells kids to be dissatisfied with ordinary jobs - like working in a restaurant - and encourages them to pursue ridiculous unlikely jobs, like unstoppable warrior hero. It annoys me, really, that hundreds of Hollywood movies are all about vaulting over ordinary people (like the panda's dad) in order to make it big. Foreign films, you'll notice, don't always have this "become a rock star" message, and are actually about realistic things and realistic people. But not American movies, noooo...American movies tell you that you can become a karate master without exercise and leave your boring dad and his boring everyday job in the dust.
Right, enough ranting. I suppose I've been spoiled by watching too many foreign movies lately, and I can no longer get behind cute formula fiction like Kung Fu Panda. That doesn't mean I hated this movie. The animation was nice, the action was cool, the celebrity voices impressed. I just wish that a single original idea - or even a shred of realism - had been displayed as well.
Starts great, ends weak
It's nice to have Indiana Jones back, even if this is his second-worst movie (after Temple of Doom).
I think "Crystal Skull" starts off great. The early scenes have tremendous visual wit -- sue me, but I love the prairie dog humor -- and the stunts are suitably spectacular. I don't even mind the atomic bomb testing scene, which so many reviewers seem to hate; I find it quite in keeping with the outrageousness and total lack of realism found throughout the entire Indy series.
After the electrifying opening, the film slows down a lot, but not necessarily in a bad way. The character "bonding" scenes between Indy and his new sidekick, Mutt, are handled pretty well and deserve gradual, careful development. All the lengthy exposition about the Crystal Skull is less successful, however.
Unfortunately, I think the skull is a poor choice for the movie's central artifact. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail both have tremendous significance to our culture, but the Crystal Skull has no such cultural resonance. It's just...some weird artifact, and the script does nothing to make it interesting.
So, as the movie ambles along, and the Skull becomes more important, things sort of disintegrate in my view. Indeed, the ending of the film seems totally random to me; there's nothing particularly compelling about the skull, about it origins, or about the whole final confrontation with the villains. Everything unfolds in a fairly predictable, special-effects-laden manner; there are no last-minute twists, no real surprises.
Fortunately, the final third of the movie is (somewhat) redeemed by Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood. She's always been an extremely charismatic actress, and she makes a great partner for Indy, so her reappearance adds some much-needed fun and emotion to the movie just when the plot begins to go stale.
So, in the final analysis, I like this movie -- to an extent. I don't agree with all the snarky film critics who have cracked endless jokes about Harrison Ford's age; I think he does well here, and I've never had any problem with movies about aging heroes (see also Rocky Balboa, Star Trek VI). I also don't quite agree with the fan reviewers who describe this film as some kind of sacrilege produced by former geniuses Lucas and Spielburg. I've never put either filmmaker on some kind of pedestal; they're both hit-or-miss, in my view. This film represents a middling effort for them both, and for Indy.
And hey, middling Indiana Jones ain't half bad.
Part bad Godzilla movie, part bad domestic drama
I recently completed one of my major life goals -- watching every Godzilla movie. Unfortunately, I left this turkey for last.
OK, so "All Monsters Attack" does have its heart in the right place. It's a well-meaning story about a young boy who feels lonely and alienated because (a) he's bullied and (b) his parents aren't around because they work too much. So this kid daydreams a lot about Godzilla, adopting the big monster as a sort of replacement father, I suppose.
It's a pretty interesting setup, but unfortunately, I think the film is ultimately too inept and annoying to really work. The kid is cutesy and dull, the bullies are corny, and the domestic conflict is played out in the most unsubtle way imaginable. Plus the film has other obvious defects, including one of the most annoying music scores imaginable.
Other commentators have defended this movie on the grounds that it's more thoughtful than other Godzilla fare, and I respect that point of view. However, I also think it's perfectly fair for Godzilla fans to be disappointed with this movie's essential childishness and total lack of realism. I mean, it's not like this is some secret drama masterpiece here -- compared to an Ozu or Kurosawa film, it's enormously tacky. So I'd rather watch a standard Godzilla movie with monster grappling and city trashing than this kind of experimental movie that, well, totally fails.
Really, to me, "All Monsters Attack" is the worst of both worlds; it's part bad Godzilla movie, part bad domestic drama, which makes it 100% excruciating (except for the occasional imaginative bit). And I honestly believe that it takes a *very* indulgent fan to appreciate Godzilla at his worst, which is exactly where he's at here.
Ladri di biciclette (1948)
It's a classic movie... and I hate it.
For years, I was the stereotypical "ugly American" who was too bored by foreign films to give them a fair chance. But that's changed lately. These days, I like nothing better than popping a Bergman or Kurosawa or Ozu movie into my DVD player, and I'm becoming more and more intolerant of crass Hollywood fare.
Bear with me, because my tedious introductory comments are leading up to a point. And that point is - "Bicycle Thieves" is perhaps THE essential movie that turned me off foreign films for so many years. "Bicycle Thieves" is, in sad fact, the movie that chased me away from subtitles, away from the arty-farty world of elite cinema. It took a long time for me to work up the courage to watch another foreign film after I saw this little gem, I can tell you.
But why, you might reasonably ask, did "Bicycle Thieves" have such a profoundly negative effect on me? Because I found it simply too depressing for words. Depressing...to an almost absurd degree.
The movie, I'm sure you know, is about a dude who needs a bicycle to get a decent job and support his family. He pawns some of his last worldly possessions in order to obtain said bicycle. And the bicycle is *immediately* stolen. Our protagonist spends the whole movie trying to get the bicycle back, and even succeeds in tracking down the thief, but he is obstructed at every turn by jerks and ultimately frustrated in his quest.
So, in the end, our hero tries to steal a bicycle himself during a moment of despair. Unfortunately for him, about 10,000 people witness the attempted theft and perform a group tackle on him to stop it. He is publicly shamed in front of his son, and then slinks away. End of depressing movie.
What exactly is the message here? Society sucks? Poverty is inescapable? Don't respond to stealing with more stealing? Or, at least, never try to lift someone else's bike when 10,000 people are ready to spring upon you from every doorway and stop you? The truth is, I can't figure out the movie's message. Nor can I relate much to the depths of poverty shown here - can the guy really not afford to buy another bicycle, or borrow one, or *something*? Or must his whole life be an endless tale of frustration and woe?
Call me superficial...call me bourgeois...call me uninformed...but I think this movie is just a drag, a slog, a pain in my posterior. It's the kind of foreign movie that turns Americans off better foreign movies, and that's a shame. I wish I could see something sophisticated about it, but I don't - what's so sophisticated about being relentlessly dark, to the point of stretching credibility?
In short, I'll gladly take the bitter-sweetness of a foreign art film like "Tokyo Story" over the bitter-bitterness of this one. Real life is usually better than what you see in this movie, folks. And when life does get this bad...I'm not sure I wanna look at it.