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10 - Masterpiece
9 - Great
8 - Very good
7 - Good
6 - Watchable if you like the genre
5 - Mediocre, don't bother
4 - Bad
3 - Terrible
2 - Garbage
1 - Genuinely offensive
Not counting "twist" endings, which deserve their own list.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
That's a bingo
Quentin Tarantino is known for his abundant use of violence and profanities, but his subversiveness runs a lot deeper than that. Consider Inglourious Basterds, his first war movie, a choral story with intertwining plot lines set in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.
It's amazing how Tarantino treats conversations like set-pieces: with his great ear for vivid dialogues he crafts magnificently tense scenes of verbal sparring, the best involving British officer Fassbender and his men, all disguised as Nazis, trapped in an increasingly dangerous discussion with a clingy Gestapo Major. See how Basterds plays with different languages - many conversations take place in (subtitled) German and French, with cunning manipulator Landa (Christoph Waltz, stealing the movie with his affably villainous performance), a skilled polyglot, ably switching between them.
In fact, the only battle scenes in Basterds occur in the propaganda movie-within-the-movie Nation's Pride, a stream of gruesome killings witnessed by an enthusiastic movie theater full of Nazis - Tarantino takes a jab at the audience' expectations, much like Joss Whedon would do a few years later in the horror genre with The Cabin in the Woods.
Tarantino also draws a clear parallel between brutalities committed for the sake of the good cause and those perpetrated by villains. Consider how the audience shares the point of view of fallen Germans savagely branded by the Basterds, or how the appearance of the "Bear Jew" is akin to that of a serial killer in a slasher movie, emerging from a dark cave preceded by the ominous thuds of his baseball bat. This is the spiritual successor of Robert Aldrich's queasily brilliant The Dirty Dozen.
Performances are fine, with the already mentioned Waltz, Pitt in one of his canny turns proving he is a much better character actor than conventional romantic lead, plus Fassbender, Kruger and Mélanie Laurent in a star-making turn as the movie's real protagonist.
Il colosso di Rodi (1961)
Any viewer expecting from Sergio Leone's sword and sandal directorial debut some kind of "Once Upon a Time in Greece" luscious, elegiac epic is going to be disappointed - like, "I found a dead rat in the soup" disappointed.
What sets this movie apart from an endless list of sophomoric "peplum" flicks dished out by Italian cinema in those years is, unsurprisingly, some visual flair - which is to say it looks competent. Mass scenes, in particular, have a certain appeal. I certainly didn't notice any sign of genius in it, though - as one does in, say, Scott's The Duellists, Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Spielberg's Duel... and Leone is by far my favorite among these directors. I guess he was a late bloomer.
As for the rest, Il Colosso di Rodi is chatty, overlong and hopelessly dated, with an abundance of lofty lines, bulging muscles, talking heads, torches waved in drably lit hallways, exotic dancing numbers and scantily clad brutes jumping with a roar on nearby enemies - the usual, tiresome fare for the genre.
Recommended to Leone completists only.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Disney characters often face death, and yet death itself is usually an anomaly for them, a breach made by violence and villainy in their happy worlds. Toy Story 3, however, might be the first major Hollywood animated feature more or less explicitly *about* death. The premise has the protagonists terrified by the prospect of their now seventeen-year-old owner Andy going to college and getting rid of them. They know they are running out of time: even when they end up as gifts in a daycare run by a dictator-like teddy bear and attempt to escape, the specter of the garbage bin looms over them.
Not that Toy Story 3 is bleak or grim - it's a good-natured roller-coaster ride full of quirky characters, creative set-pieces, witty dialogues - a funny tale of flamenco-dancing toy astronauts, self-absorbed Ken dolls and happy endings. Still, this unique perspective lends it a special pathos; good movies can simply be well-crafted, but great movies need to be ABOUT something. Pixar has been tackling with serious themes (diversity, paternity, senility, abandonment) ever since the first Toy Story: this is their boldest project yet. Let's hope they keep pushing the envelope - to infinity and beyond.
Millions of keys
There is a great moment in La Leggenda del Pianista Sull'Oceano (one of many, in fact): a musical duel in which meek, offbeat pianist 1900 (Tim Roth), right after playing at vertiginous speed an impossible piece - much to the dismay of his smug adversary - touches an incandescent piano string with a cigarette, which is immediately ignited.
Tornatore's bittersweet drama/character study crackles with creativity, emotion and wit. Roth is fantastic as 1900, a childlike and yet perceptive musical genius who, for increasingly mysterious reasons, refuses to leave the ship where he works as an entertainer; Pruitt Taylor Vince's portrayal of his best friend is vivid and engaging.
Special mention for the ending, which is surprisingly moving - that last monologue may be Roth's finest moment as an actor. Ennio Morricone provides the memorable score of a movie where music plays an essential role.
It would take a true cinematic genius to turn one of the greatest epic sagas ever narrated into a worthy two-hours movie. Alas, director Wolfgang Petersen is no such genius, just a competent craftsman.
A passable historical epic in its own right, Troy is a disastrous adaptation - every choice reeks of bad art, from hilarious title cards to dialogues alternating between sub-Whedonesque pithy banter and lofty one-liners a critic astutely described as "faux epic". Individual duels are glossy and energetic, but set-pieces with a wider scale and scope fall disastrously flat, lacking the creativity of, say, Jackson's for the original Lord of the Rings saga.
Casting is canny, with Eric Bana, Sean Bean and Peter O'Toole being the highlights. Pitt is decent, but fails to capture the terrifying side of Achilles - among the many miscalculations of the script, the omission of the carnage in the river with its water turning red doesn't help. Usually reliable Cox and Gleeson are embarrassing: blame writing and direction, since they've abundantly shown elsewhere they can act. Bloom is a non-entity smartly cast as vapid Paris. Kruger is lovely and that's all the role needs - I have to smile at the "not THAT beautiful" comments, as that's exactly what the character gets in the poem too.
The script is visibly uncomfortable with its source material. It's not just that the Achilles-Patroclus relationship is amusingly turned into a more blockbuster-friendly "cousins" kinship. The biggest mistake is erasing the mythical element so crucial in the saga, with gods meddling in the war, fighting among mortals, their fates deeply interwoven with the human protagonists' - without this, it becomes the rather mundane history of a siege. I guess they assumed modern audiences wouldn't appreciate battles involving beings with supernatural powers. Oh wait, Star Wars, X-Men, Lord of the Rings... never mind.
A few scenes glimmer in the midst of Troy (like the Achilles / Priam confrontation), the power of the source material shining through the lackluster execution.
Smashes Emmerich's lizard. Hooray?
There is a fantastic moment in this film, already spoiled in trailers and in the poster, with parachutists launching over a ravaged metropolis, their red flares streaking the dark sky, glimpses of the monsters barely seen through clouds and smoke. It's marvellous stuff, the only truly electrifying scene in the picture.
Gareth Edwards follows his debut Monsters, a fine-looking movie with a mediocre script, with his new version of Godzilla, a great-looking movie with an average script.
See, humongous CGI beasts trashing up a city can be visually striking, but need a strong human element to underpin them. Godzilla appears to provide it in the form of Bryan Cranston's obsessed scientist Brody (Jaws reference duly noted), a fairly interesting lead who gets dispatched one-third into the picture to be replaced with his stoic G.I. Joe of a son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), as generic as blockbuster protagonists get, the son's pretty nurse wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their inevitable little kid. It's tedious stuff, and no amount of visual spectacle can turn a boilerplate script into some kind of popcorn masterpiece.
The great Ken Watanabe gets to spout exposition and look awed a lot, while Juliette Binoche gets to die within a minute of screen time.
Well, at least it's no Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, I'll give it that.
Matchstick Men (2003)
You're not a bad guy - just not a very good one
There's this idea Matchstick Men is a minor curiosity in Ridley Scott's filmography, a little comedy about a con artist bonding with his daughter - for me it's one of the best movies he has done in thirty years, since his incredible starting trio (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner - best beginning by a director, ever?). An auteur with a great eye for composition, a crisp style and a phenomenal talent for visual storytelling, Scott can shoot a fine picture but appears to have no quality control when it comes to choosing scripts, with often ponderous, disheartening results.
The screenplay for Matchstick Men, though, is breezy and clever, with memorable characters and dialogues which are vivid without getting too self-consciously cozy. Cage, who can be a calamity in the wrong role (The Wicker Man), is smartly cast as a phobic weirdo, which allows to unleash him in one of those amiably over-the-top performances of his. Give him the right part, and Cage still knocks it out of the park - I am thinking of a moment near the end, where his heartbroken sobs morph into a bark of hysterical laughter. Alison Lohman is pitch-perfect in a tricky role; supporting turns by Sam Rockwell and Bruce McGill are excellent.
And when Scott puts his visual gift in service of a smart, tight script, the results sizzle and crackle.
C'eravamo tanto amati (1974)
Once upon a time in Italy
The darkest work of the great Commedia all'Italiana genre - spanning more than two decades from the early Fifties of I Soliti Ignoti - C'Eravamo Tanti Amati also marks its epilogue.
This tale of three friends - Antonio (Nino Manfredi), Gianni (Vittorio Gassman) and Nicola (Stefano Satta Flores) - finding and losing each other in the years after World War II while falling in love with the same woman, Luciana (Stefania Sandrelli), has a caustic quality to it. Comedic moments flow from nuances in the great performances by the cast, but an accurate synopsis would be as gloomy as it gets, with betrayals, failures and a deep sense of loss spread over three decades of their lives.
Even the biggest laughs have a bitter aftertaste. For example, idealistic Gianni meets crass, amoral businessman Romolo (Aldo Fabrizi in a scene-stealing, magnificently loutish turn which would have gained an American thespian at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and ends up marrying his daughter. When years later an ancient, obese Romolo is carried around his garden by a crane as he proudly claims he refuses to die, it's both grotesquely amusing and unsettling. When a now rich Gianni awkwardly poses as a blue-collar in front of his newfound friends to hide how he threw away his integrity, it's funny and tragic: director Ettore Scola at his best.
The Bay (2012)
Darwin's nightmare - part two
Let's get this out of the way - in spite of what synopsis or trailers may (mis)led you to believe, this is not a classic found-footage horror/monster movie. So if you want to watch Paranormal Activity - the Dagon Edition, don't bother.
The Bay is a competent, often unnerving ecological thriller/disaster movie about a sea community devastated by polluted water and plague-bearing parasites.
Unlike your typical found footage flick, a veteran director - Barry Levinson - is at the helm, and it shows: it's much better filmed than the average level for the genre. The final act, with the deserted town at night and the hideous overgrown parasites crawling around, has a truly nightmarish quality to it.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
In an age where escapism often means ominous 3+ hours flicks about grim anti-heroes, a movie like Big Trouble in Little China feels like a weird artifact from an ancient civilization: a fantasy/action/adventure so giddy, so deliberately cheesy, it's endearing.
The sense of fun Carpenter, his pal/favourite leading man Kurt Russell - whose crass Jack Burton, amusingly, is actually the sidekick of real protagonist Wang, even if he fails to realize it - and everyone else on set was having is palpable even today.
A light meal, but a tasty one.