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5/10
shoot them in the head
25 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Some good eats. Some good laughs and a few gotchas.

Being asked by these characters to contemplate info-overload and the power of putting the unblinking eye on people was kinda silly. At one point there's a montage of real suffering, taken out of context and strung together in a flash to underscore the point that gobs of information isn't really the knowledge or power that CNN keeps assuring us they're delivering. A character asks in heavy tones if we are really saying anything to one another. Well... okay, no. Fine. I get it. It's been true for decades, but now it turns out that ordinary folks are as biased, trivial and myopic as the conglomerates who write history. Heavy. The problem here is that there is very urgent, very obvious information that needs to be conveyed to everyone in the Diary of the Dead world - "SHOOT THEM IN THE HEAD!" It seems to me that there would be thousands of YouTube howtos about taking on the lurchy pests rather than people pontificating on the information age. Shawn of the Dead for the YouTube/TMZ generation...

There a nice shot in the middle of the film where a woman has to shoot her boyfriend as soon as he goes undead. Unable to bring herself to shoot his corpse, she waits over his body until it stirs and he sits up. They're in the middle distance, in profile. She's standing a few feet back with a gun pointed at him. He sits straight up, looking up at her face. There's a pause. She executes him and he flies back down like a rag doll. From a distance, you can't really make out their faces. The zombie's absolute helplessly, childlike posture just overwhelmed me. For just a second it was like the movie stepped back from the CGI slapstick of smashing meatpuppet skulls and showed something genuinely pitiful. The movie explicitly harps on this point for the first hour – that killing another person is a soul-annihilating thing. I was a little surprised to see the point made so well and so simply.

I've seen a bunch of these hand held films - this one did make me sick, though I admit I was way too close to the screen.
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8/10
Best Moore yet
28 June 2004
Excellent work by Moore who manages to stay behind the camera most of the time and occasionally lets footage role without his often-disingenuous everyman indignation. Compared to Columbine, it's not so smug and the gotchas seem less cruel.

Bush totally deserves what this movie does to him.

I was a little impressed that Moore did treat that poor mother's grief with some dignity. When she's set upon by a smug protestor in front of the White House who is trying to appropriate the death of her son into a critique of the war, the real loss vs. someone's opinion about policy is terrible to see.
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9/10
yummy
11 March 2004
This movie could have gone on for many more hours and I wouldn't have been bothered. The look and the sensibilities of Les Triplettes de Belleville are simply perfect to me. It's got the stately-slow comic setups of a Tati film. It has a proto-industrial look reminiscent of Jeunet and Caro films that spans from the truly monumental to the most trivial detail. Some of the characters seem like refugees from a Beckett play while others are painted in gleefully unPC broad strokes.

If you're the kind of person who revels in the plot of Brazil, plays fx segments of Blade Runner again and again, have a nearly-spent VHS of Delicatessen, love David Lynch still lifes, and have the Nightmare Before Christmas characters dancing in your head, then this movie may really suit your tastes.
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6/10
okay, I guess, but not really, ya know?
7 October 2003
I must have seen too many John Huston classics, because PH fell way below my expectations. I was really eager to love this film. I wasn't bored (very often).

Angelica Huston is pretty interesting. There were a few scenes that featured great grotesque shots of the walking corpse and his family entourage. I really love Kathleen Turner, but the things she does in this film come down on the groan-inducing side of zany.

I'm glad I saw it (I'm a fan of Huston and Nicholson), but I probably won't bother seeing it again.
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9/10
unique
24 September 2003
I was born right around the time this film was released and I live on the peninsula, so the sight of the San Francisco Bay Area 1970 in Harold and Maude was utterly astonishing to me. For me, much of the movie is like watching a ghost story.

The whole film is something of a time capsule. The charming music, the outrageous fashion, and the Maude character seem like things that could only have happened in that time and place. If a character like Maude existed today, she'd probably be on reality TV being pelted with offal or something.

The humor of H&M is wicked and mannered. I'm not sure people take the film as the class-conscious statement it must have been at the time, since these days even the poorest people in comedies seem to be living in vast apartments and driving new cars. (That is one thing I really loved about H&M - the total absence of that weird feeling I have more and more with comedies that every last thing on the set just came off the rack, out of the wrapper and was positioned just so for a product placement. It's like watching people act in the middle of Target.)

Much of the film's message was kinda lost on me. The portrayal of a rich kid vaguely probing for something to care about seemed interesting to me chiefly in the context of the 70's counterculture rather than anything emotionally involving. The opposition between Harold's mom and Maude is between a force that wants to integrate Harold into a ridiculous society of status-obsessed dopes and a `follow your bliss' approach. That underlying story became the plot of quite a lot of disposable 80's comedies, which is probably why people are sick of it.

I just didn't get Maude, though I admit that could have something to do with the limits of my imagination and experience. (I'm a Kubrick/Lang/Sternberg fan, so it could be said that I just like art to be a little more sterile and people-free than H&M).

It's a unique film that I found quite beautiful in spots and often hilarious. I dunno if I'd recommend it to very many people though. It's a pretty rarified/accidental/cult pleasure.
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6/10
cute
15 August 2003
Fun film. It's the first time I've seen Depp do a crowd-pleasing lead. His Jack Sparrow is pretty much standard Deppian posturing which really works for me, but I was surprised to see it as the centerpiece of a Summer blockbuster. Between Scissorhands and Fear and Loathing, he always seemed to me at least as smart as the script, but in this case he pretty much soars above it and delivers his lines with a real relish for camp.

The rest of the film was sorta okay, which is saying a lot since I generally loath the work of The House of Bruckheimer. Like a lot of other 2.5 hour braindead epics, this one could have edited down for time. It's not Bergman for heaven's sake - the characters beyond Depp's and Rush's (and theirs are all style) are almost cheap cardboard cutouts. The advantage of stock characters is supposed to be economy.

The story is excellent compared to general summer fair, especially in this summer plagued by stories ripped from comics, old TV shows, reality TV, and, in Bruckheimer's other Summer film, a bunch of cop show cliches mashed together. It's not so complex a story that 2.5 hours is necessary.

If producer Bruckheimer has a signature shot it's either 1) that much overused A-Team stunt explosion in the middle ground while a person is catapulted away from it in the fore, arms and legs kicking, or 2) special effect shots THAT NEVER END. In almost any Bruckheimer film there is an effect or stunt that makes you say `wow' and you want to see it again, like the melting heads in Raiders of the Lost Arc once did. With Bruckheimer you can count on seeing that effect over and over and over again during the course of the film until every drop of techno magic is drained.

The shot of the undead pirates walking on the ocean floor was great. It is exactly the sort of imaginative storytelling that has been lacking in many recent blockbuster films.
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perfect inflight film
15 August 2003
Thank god someone finally made a film that gets a laugh out of uptight white people colliding with black pop culture. I hope this starts a trend cuz the potential for this kind of joke is limitless.

I hope Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy get together again and make an honest effort to be actually FUNNY once more before they die (Bowfinger was a nice try). They should invite Michael Palin along too.
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Absolutely heartbreaking stuff.
15 August 2003
Occasionally Hearts and Minds comes over as too obvious and aggressive, as in the shockingly unflattering edits of glib, racist Americans piled one on top of another and the literal link the director draws between football and war. (Then again, I'm 31 years old and just don't know how open such racism was then, but the cuts from bigot to bigot are just brutal and perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part to assume that the director was unfair.) Also, it seems the communist NLF did no wrong that was worth putting in the film. Instead the director concentrated on eloquent nationalist sentiments. I happen to agree entirely with the assessment of the war shown in the film, but even with my sympathies it's hard not to notice that this film that concentrates so brilliantly on the suffering of real people before an evil policy focuses almost solely on the crimes of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. But maybe that was someone else's film to make and, at that moment in time, the director probably felt that there was enough coverage of NLF as just plain evil people. It's a small gripe about such a mammoth film. Documentary is not Truth, no retelling of an event ever is. Hearts and Minds is an unapologetically partisan film and is so much the better for being honest about it.

I'm `oriental' myself. Well, `oriental' enough that I know all those slurs and dismissive comments would have applied to my family and me. It was absolutely eerie for me to see people from Gen. Westmorland down to Americans watching parades on Main St. who had nothing but contempt for the people that to this day many swear the US was trying to save.

I'm not sure how many times I've ever seen the victim of bombing express himself outside of this film and that's sad. How many people were bombed in the last century? Millions certainly. In the US we've become so accustomed to hearing that our foreign policy requires almost annual bombings somewhere on earth. Particularly during the Clinton years, punishing through air strikes became so routine that it barely merited news coverage. These attacks may not be as indiscriminate as they used to be, but how many people in our history did that one anguished man speak for as he wept about his family and his home?

The sheer carnage on display in Hearts and Minds made the whole war film genre seem perversely sentimental to me. It's seldom helpful to hold up fiction to docu-footage, but, in this case, any number of moments from Hearts and Minds makes otherwise impressive films like Apocalypse Now! and Platoon seem like acts of bad taste.
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3/10
meh
19 June 2003
This movie kinda killed the whole Star Wars thing for me. I remember actually being disturbed that I was bored thirty-minutes into the film. Being bored was pretty much the last thing I expected.

Aside from the ambitious animation, everything seemed diminished. The Force went from being a limitless potential that some people were in tune with to something you test for like AIDS, pregnancy or allergies. Hammy characters like Vader and Han Solo (or even Leia's inexplicable haughty phase) gave way to one of the blandest casts I've ever seen in any film not by Antonioni. The brittle American Graffiti/jet engine aesthetic of the ships in the first films is gone in favor of glossy-plastic ships that dissolve into explosions. The clumsily abrupt scenes separated by wipes were replaced by interminable sequences of clunky dialogue. I never thought that there would be a step down from Ewoks, but there's Jar Jar.

I think this film exterminated much of the devoted Star Wars fanbase in the same way that Voyager thinned the ranks of Star Trek fans. I went to see Nemesis recently and couldn't help but notice that there weren't throngs of people who had been camped out in Starfleet uniforms awaiting the opening. Ditto with Attack of the Clones - the population of costumed campers had dwindled to almost nothing. (Now they're all wearing Lord or the Rings outfits and designing Matrix fansites - Lucas pretty much lost them, which, despite what he says, has to matter to someone who built an empire on merchandising to exactly those people.) Another indication of this falling off is the degree to which the new films have failed to penetrate the wider culture. You can still quote Darth Vader and people know what you're talking about. Say `use the force, Luke' and almost anyone on earth knows what you mean. Does anyone quote the Phantom Menace? Ever? The only reference to the Phantom Menace that I think pretty much anyone could get is Jar Jar Binks, universally understood to be an unwelcome annoyance.

The choreography of the final saber duel was really wonderful (even though Darth Maul dies standing there like an idiot while Obi-wan flips over him and stabs him in a move that doesn't seem much more impressive than any of the other moves that Maul previously shrugged off.) Even so, when I think back on 1999 sci-fi fun, The Phantom Menace pretty much sucks compared to The Matrix and the video game Half-Life. Actually, now that I think about, playing Jedi Knight II is much more fun than watching PM. Also, the console flight-sim based on PM was mediocre.

NOTE: Of course it was the forth-highest grossing film in history. It's Star Wars! There are tens of millions of us that HAD to see the extension of the movies that were the most influential franchise of our childhood and changed Hollywood. If Titanic II is ever made by Cameron and the latest teen stars, it would bring in a similar (but probably not nearly as huge) tidal wave of people that had to see for themselves if the magic cotton candy of their teens could come again. Lucas could have made the Phantom Menace ten times worse than it is and it still would have had an opening weekend that set records.
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lightheaded heist
5 June 2003
I admire some of Soderbergh's films - The Limey especially. I went into Ocean's 11 having heard that it wasn't much more than a celebrity parade dressed up with a heist plot and some nice camera work. It probably should have ended with the homage to The Right Stuff where the gang seems to evaporate in front of the Vegas fountain. Packing the expensive talent into a pointless epilogue drained most of the goodwill I had left for the film.

Some of the things I hated were - the lighting of Julia Roberts in her first scene was … bad. Why give her a mongo upper-lip shadow? Farting away the whole `Pitt is mad at Clooney for making the job personal' with a single line was … okay I guess, since I really didn't care about the subplot at that point. It's a good thing electronic components can just bounce back from an EMP.

On the other hand, the script did stay ahead of any expectations I had as far as the particulars of the heist (which was kept vague anyway - when the film was over, I couldn't say where the vault was in relation to the casino floor or the surveillance room, whereas I could draw you a map of the heists in Rififi, Asphalt Jungle, Topkapi or The Red Circle). I loved Eliot Gould. Andy Garcia was beamed in from a better movie - all of the other actors are winking at the camera and striking poses in their gloriously outlandish outfits. I love and admire long takes, but I do occasionally get a caffeine kick out of editing that looks like it was snipped from footage taken by a swarm of bees. With all the rumors around right now about remaking some of the most unique accomplishments in film history, I really appreciate the fact that Soderbergh decided to breath some life and style into what was a `meh' title.

Ocean's is like People magazine getting stuffed into a decent Bond film. Nothing wrong with that.
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Peeping Tom (1960)
10/10
bizarre
5 June 2003
Warning: Spoilers
The first time I saw Peeping Tom, it was exhilarating. The clever films within the film, puns, raw Freudian imagery, the bold acting and the way the plot unfolds as logically as a fable kept me enthralled through to the end. I tried watching it again last night and I couldn't shake an absolutely crushing sadness that emanates from Mark Lewis. He's like some aborted twin of the director in 8 1/2. But whereas Guido's creative instinct and drive emerged from a house full of women pampering him and a magical incantation that he was told will animate an ominous painting, Mark's is a murderous urge to have some of the control and power denied him by his father. Like a record stuck playing the same sound over and over, Mark has grown into an emotional cul-de-sac where he watches the story of his torture and his revenge every night.

Mark is trying to work his way out of this loop by filming a documentary. If he can create a record of sadistic control over everything around himself, maybe the act of making a story out of his life will at least give him an end to his suffering. The frenzied excitement, practically joy, of his suicide is a miserable thing to contemplate. He says that he's spent a long time preparing his walkway of cameras to capture his final rush to meet the fate he inflicted on so many others. At previous points in the film, he's noted that he expected to get caught and it's clear he's very happy to have been revealed in exactly the circumstances he staged. His documentary is a success.

Mark tries to develop a world outside of the documentary that he knows will kill him. He talks to the psychologist about getting help and his expression clearly indicates that he just can't see giving years of therapy a chance. Mark's clumsy and sincere attempts to develop a normal relationship with Helen fall into the same category - it would be so nice, but he's got something he has to do. Something creative, albeit monstrous, hardwired into Mark has to express itself `regardless of the consequences.'

As with other Michael Powell films, it's not for all audiences. Powell tells his stories with lavish color-coded signals, revels in dramatic extremes, and is unapologetic about pulling dirty tricks like dragging out Moira Shearer's death scene to the point where 1) you fully realize that Mark is an exacting composer and 2) you long for him to get on with it and kill her already.

Like everything else filmed before 1999 (when The Matrix set the current standard for believable CGI and HBO programming made R-rated material ho-hum), the fx/gore do not live up to contemporary expectations.
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just curious about the 3D
28 April 2003
The movie itself didn't really interest me. It struck me as something I might see on the Discovery Channel and watch for about 10 minutes before getting bored. Lotsa expensive hardware, lotsa snippets of scholars saying very broad things, lotsa costume reenactments, lotsa graphics to make a point and lotsa repetitive footage. Not my thing, but I could see how someone else would be vastly entertained and moved.

I found the 3D effect to be very dull. The preview that played right before the film was for the Young Black Stallion and it really made use of the IMAX theatre. The image was truly monumental, I saw fabulous amounts of detail and the sound was not only real, but godlike in its strength. I was absolutely transfixed by the images of a syrupy kid's film.

Then I put the 3D goggles on and the gigantic screen image seemed about six inches across. It really dwarfed the experience for me. There were several scenes on board the research vessel where crowds of people and endless rooms really did feel 3D. I remember being astounded by the immediacy of the sight and sound of one of the Russian crewman playing a guitar. However, most of the film is about a murky, shaggy shape at the bottom of the sea. Compared to the texture of Bill Paxton's face, a hairy dark shape with some subs buzzing around is not that fascinating to see in 3D.

I kept fighting the urge to bat away all the bubbles and random sea gunk that were always floating around in the foreground. Dunno if that's a good thing.
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Titus (1999)
6/10
interesting stuff for some people
27 March 2003
The play is kinda tedious. There aren't any really engaging characters, the plot is a collection of gross-out moments from Roman drama, the verse is completely forgettable and basically everything about the play indicates that it's an early, uninspired piece. It's okay compared to The Comedy or Errors, but interesting mostly as a curiosity for students of Shakespeare. I've always been baffled by it. Is it a grisly comedy (like the humor of the Evil Dead films) loaded with scholarly references? Or is someone supposed to take this stuff seriously as high (grosser-than-gross-but-nonetheless-high) drama? I've read some compelling arguments for either side.

Julie Taymor's movie suggests to me that it probably was written to laughed at. I don't think you could ask for a better Titus and Tamora. The rest of the cast is excellent as well. The all brought a lot of gravity and seriousness to their roles, properly pumped and glowering. It's all very professional work, but it kinda bored me after a while. There is a lot of Titus that is just hard core gore and chest beating silliness, and yet the whole cast is in Masterpiece Theater mode.

The art direction and cinematography was a pleasant diversion. On the up side, the film has a unique look about it. It is one of the most successful attempts at staging Shakespeare I've ever seen on film. The hodge-podge of the mid-century and Roman aesthetic did a lot of move the scenery back in time while keeping the set anchored by things anyone could recognize like military uniforms, expensive suits, and limos. After all, authentic Roman sets and costumes in a play written by a 16th Englishman (who wasn't bothered by anachronisms himself) wouldn't be any truer to the spirit of the piece. (However, some outfits were so Brit-pop 80's that I felt depressingly old for thinking they looked cool.)

On the down side, sometimes the art direction completely swamped everything else and I've seen this stuff before. Also, there weren't any sets that looked like people actually used them to live in or debate in or eat in. Everything, from the costumes to the biggest set pieces, looked like something built just to look good and for people to strut around in. Maybe it's deliberate. Taymor is nodding at the pure theatricality of Titus - working with the fact that these are not even remotely believable characters in a drama that has almost no naturalistic details. Maybe the film Titus is like those fashion shows where impossibly odd looking women strut down runways wearing outfits that have no practical function.

On the whole, I kinda enjoyed the film. I'm happy to watch smart people take on Shakespeare's least interesting play. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wasn't already curious about the idea of seeing a flashy version of Titus Andronicus or someone whose taste tended towards noisy, stylistized films like Run Lola Run or Jean Jeunet's stuff.

…what was up with Alan Cummings playing Saturnius like a satanic Pee Wee Herman (big chair and all)?
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Arsenal (1929)
fascinating method
27 March 2003
Arsenal seems to be a direct challenge to idea that films are intended to be digested in one sitting. Apparently even Sergei Eisenstein had a tough time making sense of the narrative of some of Dovzhenko's work. Arsenal's narrative only emerges if you concentrate on what you've seeing - comprehending and reassembling the puzzle of the images and movements that Dovzhenko has arranged to create causal and symbolic associations. Dovzhenko's camera is like the eye of God, taking in a half dozen settings, all of them connected though disparate in space and time. Dovzhenko also is perfectly comfortable inserting the fantastic (a talking horse or a faith in communism that deflects bullets) into his retelling of a historical event. I watched the film several times before the plot was clear to me.

I'd recommend this film to anyone who wants to see a whole different approach to story telling. There are many great images and some of the acting is very good (the way Semyon Svashenko glances with disgust at one of the Ukrainian nationalists and slowly reaches out to touch his ribbon, feeling it's lightness, is an example), but there is no easy way of getting past Dovzhenko's style. You have to want to figure out this film. Dovzhenko's narrative technique is as unique as Robert Altman or Tsai Ming-Liang.
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9/10
arguably perfect
24 March 2003
Warning: Spoilers
spoilers

A serenely good heist film. The acting is first rate considering that everyone is playing stock characters and the storytelling is very sharp even though you know where it's all going. The second the safe-cracker starts fretting about his baby kid during a meeting discussing the job, you know he's gonna be the first to get it - though it's still a bit of a sad surprise when he does and his death sets up one of the best jokes in the film.

As befits a noir, everyone is tainted in this film. The hero is a petty crook who's a cheap and convenient hire for gang of more ambitious thieves, `financed' by a spineless lawyer who is planning to double cross them. But Huston invests each of them with some level of honesty and vulnerability that eventually catches up with them. By contrast, the Police Commissioner is never given a moment of kindness for us to relate to. Instead he gives a gives a truly bizarre speech where he shows reporters that people to him are a squawking gibberish of numbers that come out of box when he flips a switch. Compared to that (or the spectacle of his cruel, self-righteous satisfaction arresting Emmerich and intimidating his mistress) even the sordid shootout over the briefcase seems like a deeply touching human drama, esp. when Dix cries out `Are you a man, or what? Trying to gyp and double-cross with no guts for it. What's inside of you? What's keeping you alive?' Latter in the film, a country doctor with the same near-mechanical manner as the Commissioner matter-of-factly notes that Dix hasn't got enough blood in him to keep a chicken alive. Like the Commissioner's earlier claim that Dix is a person `without human feeling or mercy,' it's obvious that the doctor's words reflect more on himself than Dix.

One could go on about all the great scenes in this film, but the whole thing is so well put together. The acting is fantastic, the photography is exquisitely ominous, the pacing and direction of the story are very tight. Not sure if I prefer Asphalt Jungle to Melville's work or Dassin's `Riffifi.' Might have to see it a few more times. (It definitely makes Mann's `Heat' look too sentimental and high gloss to be sincere.)
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Ringu (1998)
6/10
spoilers
17 March 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Ringu did scare me a few times. I found the first hour genuinely unnerving and the climax was worth the buildup. The final unveiling of Sada almost made the boring/sappy faux-ending seem okay to me, but that's just an indication of how little I care for horror - I guess the sentimental misdirection into Touched by an Angel territory is probably entirely normal in the pop-horror genre. It didn't seemed to make many people hate the Sixth Sense, so I guess it's okay in pop horror to get saccharine for a scene or two.

What I found interesting in the first hour was the vague dread of technology. There is almost always some sort of socket on the wall center screen or the characters have their noses buried in video, newspapers, records or logs. Sada seems to exist in a timeless ether - leaving clues pulsing over wires, hidden in the back pages of papers and ominous glimpses on video. The more you play by her rules, learn tricks like the Polaroids or happen to have ESP, the more you can you learn about her. For the first hour of the film, I thought the director really succeeded in suggesting there was something sinister throughout the everyday world of his film that we could almost see.

Then I got bored until the end. Though the storm personifies Sada, it's perfectly obvious that it can't kill them because it's too soon, the characters are too important, and it has nothing to do with the tape - so all the loud music and big deal made about how dangerous the storm was felt very dull. Emptying the well went on for entirely too long. Maybe I've just seen too many Scooby Doo episodes to take monster origin scenes seriously anymore. Etc… Also, all versions of this story probably suffer from having way too much plot exposition handled by having characters explain what's happening to each other.

Anyway, American version - fx/makeup didn't scare me, it has even more clumsy expository dialogue, lotsa lame dialogue like `everyone will suffer' (well, duh, and revealing Samura's face … she looked like a handsome woman in rough makeup, not a something evil whose whole existence is being trapped in a well), an irritating cute/wise kid, and far less interesting music. I found it very ordinary. I think it's going too far to say the American film dumbed-down a good film (as far as I can see Ringu is a popcorn flick), but it definitely made it louder and more obvious.

Then again, with films like the Ring, whatever scares you is the right one. IMO it's not in the same league with Carnival of Souls, Cure, or The Shining. It's more like the Sixth Sense, Poltergeist or the Blair Witch. Light, gotcha!, but well done.
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4/10
meh
26 December 2002
This was a blind buy used DVD. It totally killed a nice buzz I had going when I hit play.

It's bubble-headed comedy, but it's um. squalid. The plot is ZANY!, but the characters do things to each other that are so petty and disturbed and conveniently contrived I ultimately found it depressing to watch.

Maybe the box lead me to expect something more than an uneven, goofy caper film. (I know, I know, the quotes on the box & the Academy Award nomination mean nothing.)
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9/10
interesting
6 December 2002
Picking up the dvd of Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION in 2002 is probably a weird experience for a lot of people. It's got Gene Hackman on the cover wielding a gun with an expression that says he's about to shoot someone full of holes. It is a cop film and it does have car chases, but the almost everything else about the film defies the expectations that audiences now have of the genre. It's like watching LOGAN'S RUN, SOLARIS or ZARDOZ. After STAR WARS, the whole idea of an intellectually or philosophically ambitious sci-fi movie practically vanished. I don't like ZARDOZ or care much for LOGAN'S RUN, but the point is that after growing up on sentimental fantasy epics like Star Wars, the very idea of people trying to be daring in sci-fi seems suspect.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION suffers from a similar dissonance with a lot of people who find the film lacks plot and excitement. Police dramas, and especially television cop shows, are massively plot driven where THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a character driven. Where most action films follow a McGuffin, wind up for a heist or propel themselves towards a final shootout, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is designed so that all these things are secondary to observing Popeye Doyle's wrath. The drama is watching his bullying, his indifference to almost anything or anyone but his job beating and killing people. Assassin on the run? Drive right through everything in your path. Frog trying to give you the slip? Walk right up to him (even if you haven't anything to charge him with). Time to arrest him? Shoot everything that moves. There is no arc or maturing of his character and at the end of the film he simply charges into a fetid darkness shooting at shadows. It's a tremendously grim finish (which is underscored by the subsequent role call of characters where the cops are punished and the drug dealers get off).

Another jarring thing about THE FRENCH CONNECTION is it's documentary-like attention to detail. The events of the film are based on two real cops who handled a case that was plundered for the details that inform the plot and the police procedural scenes. Like Altman's mix of reality and art in NASHVILLE, Friedkin mixes in real locations, real cops, real traffic jams/accidents and tried to base almost every scene on some real event. The result is a snapshot of New York in decay. It's the post-Moses New York where landlords burned down their buildings to collect the insurance rather than bother renting them. In 2002, this doesn't really come across because corrupt police dramas in gritty neighborhoods are a cliché. A decade of COPS and untold thousands of B-movie dramas (`He's a Cop on the Edge!') have gone a long way towards defanging the sight of a racist cop beating the snot out of a black man over a handful of drugs. The whole emphasis on realism, the idea that the filmmaker is trying to show what's interesting about a certain place and time, is an almost bizarre idea in an age when `seeing something new' almost always refers to a new innovation in CGI effects.

It's still an extraordinary film, though one has to meet it halfway since the genre is so diminished. Hackman's performance is pretty much universally praised for good reason. He makes an amoral, loathsome, dangerous jerk eminently watchable. Fernando Rey is up there with Laughton and Mifune for me - when he's on screen he's interesting. It's a film made by extremely ambitious and creative young men. Some of these shots would simply never happen today. The insurance people would never sanction the mayhem and the NYPD would never cooperate on a film about a thug with a shield.

It's obvious why it beat A CLOCKWORK ORANGE incidentally. As perfect a film as CLOCKWORK is, it's a cerebral, shocking, stylish, and unique film. Best Picture doesn't go to films that far ahead of the pack. THE FRENCH CONNECTION was a topical genre picture with a great performance and some very well realized artistic ambitions.
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Topkapi (1964)
8/10
excellent in spots
25 November 2002
The strongest aspects of the films are a stellar comic performance by Peter Ustinov, another classic Dassin jewel heist and the glorious use of location. The rest of the cast is rather stiff and they're given a lot of lines that are supposed to come off as zany and outrageous, but don't really work. Maximilian Schell is okay and Robert Morley takes his arch banker-gone-mad thing a bit far, but the weirdest performance is the one given by Melina Mercouri. There are at least a dozen scenes where her character's horny purring is supposed to be setting the audience and cast ablaze while keeping the plot running. It's creepy somehow. If this lacquered matron can't get Ustinov all hot and bothered enough to drag her on a couch towards him, the gang won't know if he's up to the job.

It's hardly a classic except in bits and pieces. The power of the heist scene is obvious enough considering how many times it's been imitated. If I had to think of another heist as good, the first thing that springs to mind is Dassin's Riffifi (a film that has perfect acting and cinematography to go along with its heist). Ustinov is so completely into his role that I swear the rest of the cast improves just by acting around him. The time-capsule glimpse at Istanbul in the 1960's is a lot of fun.

When Topkapi isn't being a good film, it's at least weirdly bad.
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End of Days (1999)
2/10
meh, but good for some giggles
6 November 2002
Warning: Spoilers
spoilers -

I'll always remember this film for having the quickest punishment-of-a-woman-for-enjoying-sex scene that I've ever seen in a horror film. Usually an obligatory woman has sex early in the film and then is run down and killed by the monster somewhere in the middle. Playing Satan on earth, Gabriel Byrne's first dastardly deed is to tongue wrestle and grope a woman in front of her dining companion in the middle of a crowded restaurant. There's a second of her appearing aroused as Byrne walks off and then the next shot is of the entire restaurant being consumed by a fireball as Satan nonchalantly moves on. Too bad the rest of the film doesn't go in for that sort of brevity.

This is one of those movies that has a lot of exposition, but probably would have been much better without any at all. End of Days basically does a time-out intermittently so characters can explain to Arnold what the point of the next scene is or who so-and-so was. And the explanations make the plots of 70s/80s satanic horror films like The Omen and The Prince of Darkness sound lucid and downright scholarly. At one point Arnold doubtfully asks if the apocalypse is really scheduled to account for Eastern Standard Time - for a brief second the movie seems to giggle at it's own absurdly inadequate end times scenario, but then earnestly dives right back into explication as meaningless as star trek technobabble.

I had a bad feeling when I first saw Se7en that Finch's effective use of urban dark and decay was going to influence a lot of people to make a lot of movies where characters seemed to be stumbling around the in the dark for no reason. End of Days is one of those films.

It's a bad action film that runs long cuz some stale horror movie cliches got shoehorned in. Or is it the other way around? It's not scary and the action is so-so, so it fails on two levels. Byrne is okay. Arnold isn't different from any of his other films (does anyone really want him to be?), but in this movie you have to put up with the tremendous poor taste (or sacrilege I guess) of seeing him going through the motions of being a Christ figure. He's even crucified, in case the J.C. initials failed to tip everyone off.
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6/10
messy, but I'm glad I saw it
28 October 2002
Warning: Spoilers
spoilers

It's not really a popcorn flick. It's worth noting that cuz a lot of the negative reviews seem to come from people disappointed by the film's slow pace and (often needless) expository chatter. (Then again, with all the reviews referring to the aliens at the end, I can't help but conclude that Spielberg is right - people do need to have everything spelled out, hammered home and repeated.)

First act - interesting. Spielberg introduces a robot boy into a vaguely sympathetic family. Camerawork and great acting on the part of Osment succeed in keeping the whole thing uncanny. Lotsa interesting themes are set in motion, including a particularly brutal Kubrickian one that says that Gods owe nothing to their creations.

Then David gets dumped in the woods and the movie lurches between audaciously good elements and some annoying self-indulgence. Spielberg begins beating the Pinocchio theme like a gong and vast set pieces are introduced that don't add up to much. The rather long trip to the red light district seems to contribute little to the story beyond redirecting the group to Manhattan. Also, sometimes Spielberg uses sets and fx a little too much. There were just too many shots of sadists revving dorky motorcycles at the Flesh Fair and the exquisite moon blimp got to seem ordinary after a while. Losing and then reuniting with Teddy Bear and Gigolo Joe seemed to eat up time needlessly. And there was far too much expository dialogue as well as a Capt. Obvious voiceover narrator. "Hi Jude Law! Bye Jude Law!" His very likeable character filled an interesting niche (nonthreatening male, surrogate family) but his on-the-run subplot went nowhere.

Even with those complaints, I found the middle section of the film impossible to look away from. The climax walking through Gepeto's workshop was nice. The mech junk pile and moonrise was riveting. I was unreservedly thrilled by every choice in art direction. The direct way Spielberg handled the essentially Oedipal hangup of his hero was touching.

Then there's the cornball brain-damaged ending. All I can say is DANG, THAT SUCKED! Except for conceding that the kid was only really interested in feeling wanted, the ending dropped or ignored almost every theme and sentiment established in the previous two hours.

Also, I had a hard time believing that the Flesh Fair audience would be so completely offended by the idea of killing David.
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6/10
A very uneven film, prone to excesses
28 October 2002
I really enjoyed some of Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The first half hour of the film is Altman doing what he does best, the camera wanders around a fully-realized world built from the ground up and peopled by Altman. The overlapping dialogue is great and the casting looks perfect. I think the film peaks with the scene where Bill and Annie Oakley are target practicing - Altman weaves together firearms, sex, showbusiness and relationships into a pretty funny scene.

Then the Indians show up. Sitting Bull and William Halsey are portrayed as noble, mysterious and aloof. The movie spirals into a series of events where they confound the smarmy Bill Cody over and over. The last hour of the movie requires Newman to act more and more flustered by Sitting Bull until he has a really cringeworthy breakdown in front of a ghostly Sitting Bull. Maybe there was more fresh drama in watching a white profiteer abase himself before noble Injuns in 1976. It's hard for me believe that anyone but the most hardcore sentimentalist will find the drama between Cody and Bull interesting.

Anyway, there's stuff for hardcore Altman fans to watch for. Newman is initially impressive in his role and then sputters. The pageants and attention to details that Altman excels at are well done. Ultimately the themes of showbiz and history wilt before the rambling blah of the noble savage.
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8/10
Is okay, not great
24 September 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers

Watching `Strangers on a Train' for Robert Walker's performance is a hell of a lot easier and more rewarding than watching `Secret Agent' or the first `Man Who Knew too Much' for the scenes with Peter Lorre.

Strangers is almost a good Hitchcock film in spots. Robert Walker is almost impossibly good - a perfect combination of menace, charm, and anarchic energy. Walker's dark hints and endless enthusiasm for murder propel the scenes he's in. The scene with his mother and the disaster when he crashes the Senator's party are so good that pretty much all the other characters are colorless and boring.

I know this is part of the design - that Guy is doing his level best to set up a boring, ordered life that's above reproach. He's ditching one of the only other colorful characters in the film (Miriam,) marrying the boss's daughter and intends to retire from sport to pursue politics. Bruno's lifestyle of precarious idleness, weird family and utter disregard for appearances are supposed to upstage Guy, but I was actually really bored when Walker wasn't on the screen. Ruth Roman spends the whole film looking concerned about information she's digesting. I kept wanting to stop the film and check the IMDB to see if Patricia Hitchcock played the same character in `Shadow of a Doubt.' (nope, it was Edna May Walcott) The cops were so generic that I was baffled why Hitchcock bothered giving them names. And *yawn* Farley Granger?

The movie is beautifully shot in spots - the murder in the lens, Bruno's lank shadowlike presence, Bruno emerging from the dark when he flips on the light, Guy self-consciously stepping behind bars, the bizarre merry-go-round and so on. The dialogue, particularly Bruno's opaque staccato probing, is excellent sometimes. The plot is only held together passably well. It sorta kinda almost makes sense that Guy wouldn't go to the cops - he's obsessed with appearances and all. When Bruno makes it completely clear at the party that he's not exactly the sort of conspirator you can really count on to keep his mouth shut, Guy finally does commit to doing SOMETHING about his situation. The last half of the movie tends to drag because the plot is so thin (and it's a pretty short film). The parallels between the strangers never really stands up cuz Granger's plot is so thoroughly overshadowed that I forgot about him.

It's not Hitchcock's worst film, but it's way way down the list. It's really worth catching for Robert Walker.
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Audition (1999)
8/10
If you haven't seen this film, stop reading and go see it… unless extreme sadism and violence bothers you, in which case, don't.
20 September 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers follow

The last Miike film I saw before Audition was Dead or Alive. It was a painfully standard cop vs. sympathetic-gangster film but impressive because it begins with an unbeatable ten minute collage of music and violence and ends on a joke about the futility of the movie's own rigid formula that is apocalyptic. I was sorta impressed with the movie. It fought against the boredom of the plot with some wit, interesting style and several moments of gut churning awfulness. I was not at all prepared for Audition though.

I thought it would be two hours of Asami slicing Aoyama up. Instead, Miike spends two thirds of the movie making the audience wait for it. The film begins in sincere melodrama with a deathbed scene. Then it takes a seedier, more inhuman turn when Aoyama meets his friend in a bar and the audition idea is set in motion. From there much of the plot begins to resemble a horror or monster movie. The backstory of the monster is filled in. The antihero idiotically walks into dark rooms where he doesn't belong and won't listen to the advice that everyone's giving him. There's even a creature-cam of Asami lurching through Aoyama's home. Dread just seeps into plot until the part where most movies have the monster appear in its full glory (or lack thereof) for the camera. Normally a woman whom talked too much or had sex earlier in the film dies running from the monster. In Audition, the cheap thrill is a salaryman.

Aoyama drinks his poisoned liquor and the movie lurches into a phantasmagoric series of harsh jump cuts that unveil the Asami's past and present, his own disgusting cruelty, anxiety and finally delivers on the horror that Miike spent all this time building. A measure of how well the savage torture/dream sequence worked on me is that when he had his `it was all a dream' hallucination, I was actually scared of what was coming next. In his moment of fantasy, the same woman in the same shots from earlier in the film, acting as passive as she had earlier, seemed like a monster capable of doing anything that Miike might choose to inflict on his viewers. If she had ripped back the sheets to reveal a bed of a thousand chomping human mouths spewing forth centipedes, it would have seemed entirely in character. Instead he's tossed back into the real world where he's a helpless mutilated dirty old man who can't protect his son from the foolish thing he's done to himself.

The film is full of gems. The sure delicacy of the plot construction reminds me of nothing so much as Asami gingerly shoving the needles in. Eihi Shiina's performance as Asami is perfect, with just the right hints of a smile deceptively sneaking into her face and she shifts gears perfectly between the several facets of her character. The echoing of dialogue and images throughout the film is mostly successful. I don't think it's a great film, just an enjoyable one - it's quite a ride and a lot of fun in terms of technique. It's about as subtle as a brick in the head, but has so much justified self-confidence that it worked, at least for me.
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Boxing Helena (1993)
1/10
Couldn't he have started sawing with the head?
14 August 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers

Julian Sands plays a contemptible wuss who furtively lusts after an impossible jerk of a woman. One day a happy accident knocks her out and the Sand's character gets to chop off her legs and keep her imprisoned in his mansion. Then there is a long long stretch of undrama as Sand's finishes boxing Helena - cuts her off the from the world and gradually snips away at her body till she is just a trunk and a head to be propped up and tended to. Then Helena's crazy boyfriend storms the gates and doesn't want her.

Just writing that down I can't help thinking that it's a funny idea. Maybe I'm warped, but the concept of an old-fashioned guy slowly giving in to his urge to objectify a woman he can never have (so that he actually turns her into something like a gory, statue bust of herself) seems like it'd be hilarious to watch. It's masterfully done in Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire. Boxing Helena tries to hit the same notes about how the will to control, destroy, degrade, and infantalize are all the logical extremes of some notions of `love.' It fails because the characters are poorly written.

The plot demands that the characters be unlikable. Chopping up a likeable `heroine' to make a point about obsessive control just doesn't work outside of a light slasher flick. The guy doing the chopping can't be all that saintly either, cuz he's giving into some pretty awful urges. But in order for the plot to work, you have to at least see why the Helena character might spark an obsession and the chopper must be at least slightly sympathetic. Otherwise it's just an obsessed crazy guy chopping up a jerk. Boxing Helena is an obsessed crazy guy chopping up a jerk.

The Sands character is loathsomely spineless. He's a creepy, simpering bore. Helena is a demented moron who wants to use people, but is too stupid to get more out of her looks than a thuggish oaf boyfriend. Watching them interact was torture.

Ending on a `it was just a dream' note is just plain baffling. It implies that Sand's character is a whining, sniveling waste even IN HIS DREAMS! There's black humor and then there's `I just wasted two hours of your time watching a worthless character wish for something pathetic, badly.'

Final note: the symbolism was about as subtle as a brick in the head - over and over.
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