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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
The Legend of Korra (2012)
Flirting with greatness
An animated series set in the same narrative world of Avatar: The Last Airbender (and a sequel to it, although knowledge of the previous story is recommended but not imperative), The Legend of Korra is an action/fantasy/adventure influenced by both Wuxia and steampunk. At its best, Korra feels like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Princess Mononoke meets an elemental version of the X-Men. At its worst, it feels like a kids show - which is definitely not a bad thing in itself (and Korra WAS, in fact, a Nickelodeon series) - it just doesn't jibe with the epic flavor the show attempted to achieve, or with some of the mature themes it tried to juggle (terrorism, anarchy, fascism, spiritual growth...) during its four seasons run.
It's a neat series with several flaws: moments of juvenile humor (if you use fart gags while characters are embarking on a spiritual journey, you are doing something wrong); a few tired narrative choices, like the "battle between good giant entity and evil giant entity" climax of the second season; the inability (or impossibility, considering the original target audience) to go for unapologetic darkness when narrative called for it.
(Spoiler-y example: at the end of the first season, heroine Korra suffers a major loss in terms of powers, an interesting twist for a likable but brash protagonist who revels in her abilities. However, after five minutes, her powers are restored and boosted. That's not an effective way to structure the hero's journey; blame it on the troubled production history).
Still, lore and world-building are rich and detailed; storytelling is tight and compelling; the appealing visuals are reminiscent of the works of the great Hayao Miyazaki. In its finer moments, as the protagonists roam the streets of Republic City - a sort of Asian New York set in a steampunk version of the roaring Twenties - Korra almost feels like Hugo Pratt taking a shot at the superhero genre. A must-see for geeks.
Every Frame a Painting (2014)
One of the best things you can find on the Web if you love movies, Tony Zhou's series of essays is a brilliant analysis of the visual language of cinema.
Among other topics, Zhou discusses: why Kurosawa's films are so visually rich, combining different kinds of movement (weather, individual characters, crowds...); how the Coens master the theoretically simple "shot-reverse shot" technique and make their dialogue scenes pop to life; Spielberg's recourse to moderately long takes to tell a story as economically and unobtrusively as possible; how, in The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme employs visuals to convey the shifting power balance in a conversation; the potential of ensemble staging, using as an example the magnificent Korean thriller Memories of Murder; how Edgar Wright, unlike other comedy directors, doesn't limit himself to point the camera at witty banter but creatively uses visuals to tell jokes.
I can't recommend this series strongly enough to movie fans. Riveting.
The Jungle Bunch
This little French gem is a funny, fast-paced, colorful adventure-comedy with crisp visuals and amusing characters, a pleasant animated series even adults can watch. Seriously, how can you not enjoy a team of animal superheroes whose leader is a penguin who paints himself with orange stripes in his endearing obsession to be a tiger?
The Kung Fu Panda show could take some notes on how to make a group of well-differentiated protagonists with distinctive personalities, comic-book villains and stories aimed at kids which feature both monsters and pratfalls, martial arts battles and lightweight gags, and still manage to be tonally consistent.
Gérard Depardieu battles Kung Fu Alchemist; everybody loses
Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) led a singularly interesting, eventful life. He was a criminal, then became a detective; credited as the founder of modern criminology, he dedicated revolutionary attention to branches like ballistics and undercover work. Shockingly, however, at no point did he pursue a sorcerer serial-killer who wore a magic mask and murdered virgins to obtain eternal youth.
This thriller/fantasy accomplishes a remarkable task: usually a movie is either boring or ludicrous, but it takes a special alchemy (badum-tsh) to be both - although the rare fights between corpulent, aged Depardieu and the super-villain who hisses and convulses as if he has wasps under his cloak have a delightfully hilarious quality to them. Visually, the film is all over the place; it looks like the kind of nightmare Paul W.S. Anderson might have after an unhealthily spicy dinner.
Vidocq wastes two fine actors like the always watchable Depardieu and Guillaume Canet - the latter probably best known outside France as the lucky guy who got to marry Marion Cotillard.
If you want a better horror/thriller set in 17-18th century France, check out Le Pacte Des Loups, which is also very silly but much more competently crafted.
Your aim would suggest otherwise
I have a special affection for Disney's classic Cinderella (1950), but I acknowledge its main message is problematic, with a female protagonist passively enduring a lifetime of abuse only to be rescued first by magic, then by marriage. I can understand the purpose of a version with a more proactive heroine. Which is what EverAfter attempted to do... except it's garish, tone-deaf and poorly cast. Looking at director Andy Tennant's uncannily bad resume, it's hardly a surprise.
Drew Barrymore is appealing in a girl-next-door kind of way but, with her tomboyish look and feel, she comes across as a teenager playing dress-up. Far worse is Dougray Scott as the prince. Scott is a handsome chap, I guess, but there is something cold, almost reptilian about his glare, which made him ideal as the anti-Cruise villain in Mission Impossible 2 - not so much as a romantic lead. Anjelica Huston at least is better cast as the baleful stepmother.
Tennant glues scenes to each other with no regard for build-up or coherency. In a twist worthy of a soap opera, the heroine is sold into slavery (?) to some evil ruffian. Once inside his castle, she grabs a sword and orders him to unchain her. You now expect some kind of narrow escape sequence, evading guards and so on... except, the movie just cuts to her walking out of the castle with a satisfied smirk. Wait, what? Did the evil guy turn to stone? Did he live all alone in that huge fortress? It defies not just logic, but also the basic rules of storytelling; it's grotesquely anticlimactic.
Even visually, here's an example of how little thought went into EverAfter. During the final confrontation, the stepmother is dressed in the same shade of deep green as the nice stepsister, while the wicked stepsister wears red. It doesn't make sense! You want to VISUALLY ASSOCIATE the two evil characters and make the good one STAND OUT. It may be a nitpick, but the movie is littered with this kind of sloppy choices.
The movie features Leonardo da Vinci as a secondary character. The Italian genius has not been lucky as far as his cinematic appearances are concerned: between this, the Bruce Willis bomb Hudson Hawk, a cretinous potboiler like The Da Vinci Code and Paul W. S. Anderson's The Three Musketeers, it's ironic how a man of such legendary intelligence tends to be referenced by singularly silly movies. His most memorable cameo may be in the comedy Non Ci Resta Che Piangere... where he is portrayed as dumb. Go figure... poor Leonardo.
Do Not Disturb (1999)
... and with William Hurt as Inspector Derrick
An inane, wannabe-Hithcockian thriller which looks and feels like an episode of some dreary Mittel-European crime series, Do Not Disturb follows the dangerous Amsterdam vacation of an American couple (William Hurt and Jennifer Tilly) whose daughter witnesses a murder.
The movie is tedious and worthless... until the climax, when my enjoyment rocketed through the roof during a supremely cheesy car chase, with a grimacing Hurt clinging to the top of an ambulance. When the ambulance's doors burst open and the girl on the stretcher was propelled towards a river, I was laughing so hard my neighbors probably worried about my sanity. It's like something out of Hot Shots or Naked Gun; more scenes of this kind and the movie would almost have been worth recommending.
It Follows (2014)
Creepy Carpenter shrine
Reminiscent of classics like Halloween and The Thing in tone, feel, pacing and even score, It Follows is a neat horror movie doomed to be mocked for its seemingly gonzo premise: a sexually-transmitted curse whose victims are stalked by a slow-moving but implacable shape-shifting entity, like a sort of zombie syphilis.
Still, there is more artistry here than may be immediately obvious. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell does a phenomenal job in terms of atmosphere, creating a palpable sense of dread as the young protagonists try to evade their supernatural enemy escaping through gloomy, Bradburyan suburbs.
Il corsaro nero (1976)
Writer Emilio Salgari is an interesting figure. Author of dozens of adventure novels set in all kinds of exotic locales, creator of iconic characters like Sandokan, Yanez and the Black Corsair, Salgari spent his life in Italy but wrote of pirates, galleons, jungles, thugs, tigers, deserts, Sioux, Cossacks, polar explorations, whales and typhoons, and did so with pathos and endearing earnestness. Despite the success of his works - which have become classics of popular Italian literature - he died penniless (following his passion for all things exotic, the poor man committed Seppuku).
The Black Corsair is a surprisingly watchable pirate adventure, competently directed and with a catchy soundtrack. Many performances are weak, but the movie nails the central role: Kabir Bedi, who achieved fame in Italy playing Salgarian anti-heroes, is perfectly cast and charismatic. With his piercing stare, infectious smile and athletic figure, he feels at times like an Indian Sean Connery. Mel Ferrer plays the villainous Duke.
Please pardon the theatrics
Misconduct is the most disappointing type of drama/thriller, the one which seems kind of watchable for thirty minutes or so and then, twist after twist, turns into a moronic potboiler.
Lawyer Ben (Josh Duhamel), whose marriage with Charlotte (Alice Eve) has seen better days, meets old flame Emily (Malin Akerman), who teases him into rekindling a relationship and at the same time turns out to be the current girlfriend of rich executive Denning (Anthony Hopkins), against whom Ben's firm, led by Abrams (Al Pacino), has clashed before. Emily shows Ben incriminating data from Denning's personal files, but is then abducted... or is she? And that's just the beginning of a series of labyrinthine, increasingly silly events.
The movie is a ball of noir tropes crumpled together, like a dead-serious version of The Big Lebowski, with femme fatales, trophy partners of smug millionaires, fake kidnappings, mysterious henchmen and a befuddled protagonist stumbling into a string of red herrings and non-sequiturs. Unlike the Coens' sharp, hilarious classic, Misconduct oozes stupidity from every frame.
Duhamel portrays his amoral lawyer doing an effective "Timothy Olyphant passing a kidney stone" impression - at least I suppose that was the intended goal. Byung-hun Lee plays the world's least proficient hit-man, one who attacks his victims by punching them while riding a motorcycle and yet fails to kill someone tied to a chair.
Former titans Hopkins and Pacino probably high-fived between takes at the thought of the umpteenth easy paycheck. Although Pacino does get to utter the line I put in the review title, which serves as a nice meta commentary on the last part of his career.
Poor Alice Eve is uncannily stiff and dead-eyed - not the world's greatest actress to begin with, she gets saddled with an absurd character. Also, casting lookalikes Eve and Akerman (both statuesque, clear-eyed, round-faced, long-haired blondes in their mid-thirties) as, respectively, the protagonist's spouse and potential lover, was an idiotic choice. You want COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TYPES for the contrasting roles of the Wife and the Temptress (think Emily Mortimer/Scarlett Johansson in Match Point), not clones.
Add Julia Stiles (in a minor part as a detective) as another long-haired blonde of similar age and facial structure, and this is starting to look like The Stepford Wives.
A mediocre hybrid which will please very few
I like zombie movies; I like Jane Austen novels. This doesn't mean I like them together - I also like both pizza and snorkeling, but I suspect trying them at the same time would be a less than satisfactory experience.
I am not as offended by this mash-up as many apparently are. Yes, it's a weaselly way to use someone else's (classic) work for money - but, when a book still inspires parodies and pastiches two hundred years later, it means it's still vital and relevant.
So, Jane Austen and zombies. Set in an alternate history England overrun by a zombie plague, the movie follow spirited, katana-wielding Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and proud zombie hunter Darcy (Sam Riley) as they meet, clash and fall in love while trying to survive the undead horde.
This could have been charmingly stupid, but it required a person of great talent at the helm to make the charming prevail over the stupid - say, Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright, a man able to milk every single opportunity for off-beat humour and to get a laugh even from the way he frames someone being offered a slice of cake. Director Burr Steers doesn't bring anything special to the table; set-pieces aren't exciting, horror isn't scary, humor isn't funny. The result is a badly stitched up Frankenstein monster barely limping through its 107 minutes.
Even social satire, a promising angle (think of the clash between formal, stuffy upper-class 18th century Britain and a zombie epidemic) is mostly overlooked.
Maybe producers expected this would be a perfect date movie, with romance for girls, zombies for boys and comedy for both - judging from its box office results, general audiences didn't take the bait. I guess we may be spared the likes of Wuthering Heights and Werewolves, War and Peace and Aliens, Great Expectations and the Mummy.