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The Maltese Falcon
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Third Man
The Last Picture Show
The Harder They Come
The Long Goodbye
The King of Comedy
"The Singing Detective" (mini-series)
A feast for the eyes
This is one of the most visually stunning movies I've seen in a long time. The production stills and poster really do the movie a disservice by emphasizing the "pure black and pure white" nature of the animation. While the characters are, in fact, animated in only black and white (no greys) the backgrounds are rendered with an amazing level of detail in various shades of grey as well as pure black and white.
There are too many breathtaking shots to name, but some of my favorites were (1) The "magical forest" where the Ilona wakes up, (2) the Avalon president's office, which is in a grey glass cube overlooking the city, and (3) the car chase that climaxes at the foot of Notre Dame. While there is an obvious (and superficial) visual resemblance to Sin City, I found that I was most often reminded of the original V For Vendetta: the combination of high-contrast, photo-based backgrounds with more "cartoony" foreground characters is very similar to the look that David Lloyd achieved in that classic comic book.
In a movie like this, the animation style could easily become just a gimmick, but the makers of Renaissance have managed to keep the visuals interesting without distracting from the storytelling.
The story itself is your typical futuristic sci-fi mystery. Nothing great, nothing terrible. The acting is well-done. The real reason to watch this movie (preferably on a big screen) is to be blown away by the graphics. While the technologies in use here (3d rendering, motion capture, etc) are nothing they are used in this movie to make one of the most original and creative visual statements I've seen in years.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Fairly weak Bond film
In the 70s, all of the Bond films made regular appearances on Sunday night's "Movie of the Week", and I saw this one two or three times as a kid.
This was the first time I've seen it as an adult, though, and I have to say that unlike Goldfinger or From Russia With Love, this one didn't hold up very well.
The whole thing seems somewhat dispirited, like everyone is just going through the motions. The plot is completely nonsensical -- even more so than most Bond films. The setup is that SPECTRE is using a rocket ship to steal Russian and American space capsules out of orbit, in order to provoke a war. So it goes without saying that the Americans play along perfectly, even though a Soviet space capsule has been captured as well as an American one. Obviously, it's just those sneaky Commies capturing one of their own ships to throw off suspicion! But that plot weakness would be forgivable if the whole movie were a little more exciting. Unfortunately, it isn't. Towards the end of the movie, we have to endure a long sub-plot in which Connery is made-up to look Japanese(!), undergoes ninja training(!!) and has a phony marriage to a Japanese woman which is supposed to help him sneak onto the island which is of interest to the Secret Service.
Fortunately for Bond, the phony marriage lasts for about two minutes of screen time before he and his faux-wife are chasing the villains again. It's fortunate for him because his Japanese makeup (and accent) are particularly awful, but it's unfortunate for the viewer because it renders the entire 20-30 minute sequence we've just sat through completely meaningless. They could have just as easily skipped the whole thing, and had Bond and the girl go straight to the island to start fighting the baddies, and the movie wouldn't have felt like all the energy was lost in the second half.
The climax is an uninspired and unexciting shoot-out. Overall, this is definitely one of the weakest Connery Bond films.
Historical Epic as Auto Commercial
As pure an example of de-evolution as you're likely to see on screen this year, 300 takes the grand tradition of Hollywood historical epics and reduces it to the level of a TV commercial.
The filmmakers have reduced one of the seminal tales of western civilization to a bunch of stale catchphrases and lovingly photographed, slow-motion violence. Philosophically, this is a good movie for those who found the "Star Wars" movies to be too subtle. Virtually everyone who opposes our noble heroes is portrayed as, quite literally, an inhuman monster, while visually, the only tricks the director and editor seem to have brought to the table are (a) color everything bronze and (b) the old slow-fast-slow routine, a digital effect that was thoroughly played at least five years ago.
Add in some endless fields of softly swaying wheat, and all that was missing was for the latest Dodge SUV to come sweeping majestically around the mountains.
Gorky Park (1983)
Great thriller; they don't make 'em like this anymore
Watching this with a friend of mine, he commented "I was just saying the other day, even the 'B' movies from the 70s are better than the best movies today." Even allowing for the fact that this came out in 1983, that's an excellent point.
They rarely make movies like this anymore. It's an exciting spy thriller, but it's realistic, and it's got some brains behind it as well. There are no idiotic "Air Force One" acrobatics, no gigantic explosions (with a character jumping towards the camera in the foreground) and no snappy catch-phrases. Just a good mystery and a boatload of great performances.
One thing that's interesting about this film is that in the end, the mystery turns out to be about commerce, not politics, which is unusual for this sort of cold-war Soviet thriller.
Another exceptional feature is the great script by the legendary Dennis Potter. This sort of thing makes me wish he had done more movie scripts for hire. While it's certainly not a personal project like Pennies for Heaven or The Singing Detective, Potter still turns in a top-notch script, filled with typically Potterian touches (like frequent references to losing your skin, and the smart, snappy, hilarious dialogue in general).
Another Potter touch (also used in Christabel) is the way all the characters (except the Americans) use British accents. This is a little disconcerting at first, but once you're used to it, it works really well. First, an actor playing a Russian and speaking English with a British accent is hardly any more "unrealistic" than an actor speaking English with a Russian accent. More importantly, the use of British accents (as in Christabel) allows Potter and the actors to indicate the characters' relative social status, by the type of accent they have. Intellectually, it doesn't make any sense to have the Soviet administrators talk in an upper class British accent, and the regular cops speak with a Cockney accent, but artistically, it induces an immediate emotional response in the viewer that makes a real difference between the two characters instead of just presenting us with two indistinguishable "Russian cops".
All in all, this is an under-appreciated thriller that holds up extremely well, over twenty years later.
Grace Is Gone (2007)
This movie won the Audience Award for dramatic film at Sundance 2007 (and a screen writing award), but I found it to be the most disappointing and shallow of the films I saw at the festival. John Cusack gives a great performance as Stanley, a father who's trying to figure out how to tell his two daughters (8 and 12) that their mother has been killed in the Iraq War. The movie is a big-time tearjerker, but aside from the broad-stroke melodrama, I found it to be emotionally vacant.
We're never given any real indication of what's going on in Stanley's head. At one point, his hippie dropout brother (Stanley is a conservative war supporter) provides some helpful exposition about Cusack and his late wife, but the writer/director never seems to have heard of the "show, don't tell" rule. The only concrete demonstrations of Stanley's distress we ever get are a series of shots of him staring into space. We never find out if Stanley's political beliefs have been challenged (or strengthened) by his experience, or whether his belief that his wife died fighting a just cause made it any easier (or harder) to cope with his loss.
In fact, the movie seems to have decided to portray Stanley's emotional confusion by not having him express any emotion at all, and the only insight we gather is that it's really, really, really, really, really hard to tell your children that their mother has died.
And in the end, any tears generated are not due to any particular skill in writing or directing, but simply because of the audience's reaction to how horrible it is for ANY parent to have to tell their young children that their other parent has died. To me, that's a cheat; the movie doesn't provide any sort of insight into Stanley's feelings and relies on the audience to provide all the emotion.
Cusack supplies a fine performance with the limited material he's been given (as do the two daughters), but this movie doesn't supply much else besides cheap tears. Watch for it to become a monster hit and pick up a basket of Oscar nominations.
A classic "mess with your head" movie.
Sir Anthony Hopkins writes, directs and stars in a good old-fashioned "warped reality" movie. Hopkins plays a screenwriter who's revising the script of a movie called "Slipstream" as the movie is being shot. Needless to say, the line between fiction and reality swiftly blurs as characters from the movie start appearing in his real life, and we keep reliving the same scenes from different angles. It's nothing we haven't seen before in the works of David Lynch or Dennis Potter, but Hopkins keeps the action from flagging and provides a surprisingly emotional climax. Definitely worth a look if you like this sort of movie, but I don't expect to see it at too many theaters besides the hardcore art-houses.
A fun little movie
The premise here is that Steve Buscemi is a washed-up political reporter who is assigned to interview a tabloid-fodder actress known for her direct-to-video horror movie sequels (played by Sienna Miller). Neither one of them wants to do the interview but they wind up spending the entire evening together and (maybe) revealing a bit of the real person behind their defenses. The whole thing is a little contrived -- it's the sort of piece where both characters spend the first half complaining about how much they dislike the other, but neither one is willing to leave or ask the other to -- but the snappy patter and excellent performances sucked me in and I happily went along for the ride. Of course Buscemi is great, but Miller was surprisingly good as well, digging into the part of a sex symbol who isn't taken seriously with a lot of enthusiasm and self-confidence.
Julian Temple -- who filmed the Clash at one of their earliest rehearsals -- has assembled a truly impressive array of footage, including 8mm family films from Joe's childhood and a performance from the 101ers, his pre-Clash R&B/pub-rock band. There are interviews with Joe's squat-mates from the early 70s, Mick Jones and Topper Headon of the Clash, and numerous other people (musicians and other) who either worked with Joe or were influenced by him. My only reservation is that the movie might be overwhelming to someone who was unfamiliar with Strummer's work, or the broad outlines of his history, but I think even a complete novice would have to come away impressed by the sheer scope of Joe's legacy, both in terms of music and the influence he left on his friends and admirers.
Smart and creepy
This is a smart psychological horror film. An upscale NYC couple bring home their new baby and their older child -- a nine-year-old boy prodigy -- starts acting extremely creepy as suspicious accidents and odd behavior increase. Director George Ratliff creeps you out without any significant blood or gore, making this movie a lot more like Rosemary's Baby than, say, The Omen. With a smart script and great performances by everyone, including Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga and the kid playing Joshua, the only downside to this movie is a rushed "and-then-it-ends" anti-climax that I found unsatisfying. Still, this is worth a look if you like scary movies.
Funny and touching
Waitress is a great, funny movie starring Keri Russell as a small-town waitress who discovers that she's pregnant just as she's planning to leave her jealous, controlling husband. The typical Hollywood approach for a movie like this would be to film it in ultra-serious "movie of the week" mode, but writer/director/actor Adrienne Shelly chose to tell her story in an extremely stylized, almost fairy-tale style. The stylized dialogue, super-sharp photography and primary-color palette even reminded me of the movies of Joel & Ethan Coen at times, but in the end, this movie packs an emotional punch that the Coen brothers have rarely achieved. It also features a brilliant (and brilliantly human) performance by Andy Griffith as the horny old geezer who owns the diner where Russell works.
This movie has a good chance at achieving a Little Miss Sunshine-style breakout this year. It's funny, quirky and honestly touching. Waitress stands as a fine legacy for Adrienne Shelly, but if things had been different, it could have been the movie that launched her into the mainstream instead of her swan song.