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A little heavy handed
Clint Eastwood has produced some brilliant work as a director. Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby come to mind.
But, as with Flags of Our Fathers, he here demonstrates a penchant for going over the top.
There were times I felt like I was watching a dystopian commentary on systemic corruption at the hands of the new world order rather than a period piece revolving around a humanly dramatic mystery.
Much of the acting is equally excessive as Clint lingers to jab a knife into our hearts in a way that is meant to be grueling but is surprisingly shallow.
Such are the consequences of the risks inherent in going deep with dramatic material. The effort is compelling even if the result is lacking in grace.
Part of the problem is the complexity of the material, which seems to drift between two different story lines, both of which are given equal weight even though they are barely related, as if one is meant to throw us off the trail of the other - which results in cheaply woven mystery and a plot that loses its way.
Somebody forgot what story telling is
***** SPOILERS ***** OK, this is what happens when a master story teller gets caught up in show running or executive producing or whatever.
The problem isn't what happens in this episode, but how we got here. Writing a character out of several episodes and then tossing him out without warning is not how this is done. A high school writer of short stories knows the word I'm about to say: SETUP.
Rhimes has an MFA, so I know for a fact she knows what a proper setup is. More importantly, she knows Poetics inside and out and one of the most fundamental rules is that what happens must follow a logical flow from one state of affairs to the next inevitable state of affairs. Part of what makes Grey's Anatomy such an amazing ongoing story is that she has done this with every other plot since day one. Even George's death made sense because she put him in an arc where it made sense.
After 11 years of watching this character struggle, we deserved a much better and more professional lead up to what could have been an amazing moment of catharsis.
Instead, we are treated to nothing more than an unexplained, illogical, senseless moment of pure shock that serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever. It was wasted.
Like I said, somebody forgot they were a storyteller and decided to be something else instead. And she knew better.
Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Why do directors do this?
I am so sick and tired of film makers who either don't know how to write and shoot a complete script, are too lazy to write and shoot a complete script or think that wasting my time with an incomplete story is somehow "artistic." The real life history of the Ridge family blazing the Meek Cutoff has PLENTY of material from which to construct a complete story.
Failing to end your story is not art: it is a fraudulent abduction of my time and waste of your crew's hard work. (And trust me, making this film was hard work.) And the sad part is that I actually enjoyed the setup. Yes, it's slow and ponderous, which captures the essence of pioneer travel in the 1840's and really immerses you in the isolation and uncertainty of what these people went through.
Would have been a great movie if they had bothered to finish the damn thing.
Timeless message more relevant than ever
I saw this in the theaters when it came out in 1975 and was far too young to appreciate not only its message, but its treatment of that message.
Thematically, this is an important film and joins the camp of several films from the time which used science fiction as a carrier for ideological discourse. Rollerball, more so than just about any movie I've ever seen, re-affirms the essence of the American ideology in a world where individuality has been neatly replaced with the perfect order of corporate utopia. (An interesting twist on the typical governmental utopia - but the idea is the same.)
The story development here is sublime, beginning with an adaptation of roller derby in an almost comical version with motorcycles that never seem to have a real purpose. But this sets the stage for a powerful allegory later in the film.
The real story here is the struggle of one man against the forces of society, all of which conspire to deprive him of the one thing he loves: the game. At first, he is bemused and doesn't understand, but as the movie progresses, we see him simply refusing to change as instructed while seeking the answer to why he is being asked to give up the one thing that gives his life meaning.
For those of us (myself included) who may not understand the message buried in the dialog, we are eventually told the simple premise behind the game itself, its role in a perfected (though far from perfect) society and the stunningly simple answer to the question as to why this man is being told to conform.
The dramatic development of the political theme and the characters make the actual game sequences meaningful and interesting, not because roller derby with motorcycles is in any way compelling, but because it brings the inherent struggle of the story to a pique and engulfs both ideas and characters that are extremely well set up.
I cannot help but think that in modern times, as we witness the (attempted) manifestation of many of the Utopian ideas presented in this film, that it is a timely reminder of - and a timely warning against - the essential forfeiture of liberty that seems more and more unavoidable.
This may be billed as an action film, but it's actually a thinking film and will challenge you intellectually even as those motorcycles which never seem to have any purpose race around the track.
An old fable in a rebellious medium - gotta' love it.
I first saw Wizards when I was 11. In 1977, graphic animation was not nearly as prevalent as it is today, so its impact carried an unique punch that stuck with me forever. There was much to the tale that moved me deeply, but I wasn't old enough to understand why.
22 years later, I found a used copy of the DVD and grabbed it up without even looking at the price. It's Wizards. You don't ask, you just get it.
The same emotional mysticism I experienced in 1977 came to life again, a forgotten old friend and yet so very familiar. At the tender age of 43, however, the fable which eluded me at 11 was now very clear.
The setting of this film - Earth 1 million years post destruction, and its culture - is but an allegory. The medium of animated fantasy is twisted in a wicked clever way by Bakshi to deliver a message that is oddly anachronistic for its time. 1977 wasn't that far from the revolution of the '60's and still simmered in a pasteurized version where disco and sex remained as sentinels. When you consider the culture of the time, the harsh commentary of Bakshi was, if not novel, certainly bold.
The notion of magic vs. technology is not meant to be taken literally as the primary theme here. What he's really talking about is the futility of pacifism in the face of aggression, a lesson we still haven't quite learned. In one of the most sublimely moving scenes, we hear a child ask his mother, "Why can't we fight and win, Mommy?" "Because they have weapons and technology; we just have love," his mother answers.
For those willing to fight, there is the notion that good intentions are equally futile. Warrior elves are no match for tanks. Enemies, sometimes, have to be taken seriously.
There is also a very blatant comment about the fallacy of religion in the face of reality, which still carries a pretty hefty punch. Priests are no match for guns, either.
The most compelling message in Wizards, though, is the notion of personal will. Nekron 99 a.k.a Peace, reminds us that we may not always be able to control what we do, but we do get to choose what side we're on. There is also the subtext of Peace being secured by the will to perpetrate violence and that violence can be viewed in different ways depending on its motivation.
Along with all this, Bakshi is very quick to point out the ignorance and, ultimately, the cowardice of naked aggression. Without compromising his message of pacifistic futility, he paints war in a macabre light highlighting its intrinsic futility in achieving anything and its vacuous cruelty devoid of any real meaning. No glory in war is to be found here. The victims of war abound, on both sides, and in all roles. War makes losers of all.
For me, it is the fusion of these two ideas that makes Wizards what it is. War is cruel and useless. In the face of war, pacifism is equally cruel and useless. And yet, there is a way out. In a world of fairies and monsters, we are given Avatar, the wizard you might find running a Deli in the Bronx. It is easy to mistake his weary wisdom for indifference. Avatar is a realist. But that is not to say he is fatalistic. He's just a bit smarter than the rest because he knows that the personal will and sacrifice of heroes can still carry the day. As long as they are willing to kill the King. The most humane solution to war is to cut it off at its source.
The Aviator (2004)
One would expect a movie about Howard Hughes with Aviator as the main word in its title would be about Howard Hughes and his accomplishments in aviation.
And one would be wrong.
Spending far too much time on Hughes's eccentricities, this film appears to be an attempt to explore psychosis more than anything else. Depicted to the point of hyperbole, the man's difficulties are slathered over this stylish and vacuous portrayal.
Meanwhile, the tale of Hughes Aviation is relegated to stage dressing punctuated by a few instances of genuinely exciting feats.
If you have any knowledge of the history of Hughes Aircraft or the man behind it, you will be disappointed.
Perhaps most indicative of the lack of real interest this movie has in aviation is the simple failure to accurately depict even the most basic concepts of flying. If you throw the stick forward, the plane will not go faster, it will nose over and crash into the ground.
This movie throws the stick forward.
I don't like film noir for the same reason I don't like modern art. Modern art is cool because it is incomprehensible, providing the illusion that indulging confusion is somehow deep. I've always thought this sort of thing was a kind of joke where the artist laughs quietly at our efforts to inject chaos with false genius. Or maybe I just don't get it.
To be incomprehensible because of intellectual prowess may be admirable, but to be incomprehensible due to little more than obscure confusion is annoying.
The problem with this film is that the plot is simply not resolved. Whether or not this is intentional, I honestly cannot tell. We are given an explanation in the penultimate scene that is presented in a manner that simply invites us to ask more questions which ultimately go unanswered and leaves the audience to make up their own mind. If possible.
Honestly, this little trick was old a long time ago and has not become less annoying with age.
I will say, however, that the film is captivating. I desperately wanted my answers and enjoyed the highly experimental sequencing. But the director owes me an answer. He owes me a story. He owes me a conclusion.
And we never get one. Or maybe I just don't get it.
If you want something that's different and kind of cool in the end, watch The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. You won't lose sleep trying to figure them out because they actually have a conclusion.
The Last Samurai (2003)
The Last Samurai is a poetic story about redemption, honor, love and the inevitable death of all things. Ed Zwick weaves a simple tale against the romanticized backdrop of late 19th century Japan when the last vestiges of feudal Japan, and its ancient culture, slip away in the face of Western modernization.
The story begins with Capt. Nathan Algren, a cynical whiskey-soaked veteran of the plains wars hawking Winchester rifles to an ignorant audience. The depiction of Western society is vilified to the point of caricature in this film, which I'm not sure was necessary, as the prose of the Samurai culture sings well enough on its own.
We soon learn through various flashbacks that Algren is a soldier who has lost faith in himself and his country but still retains the passionate spirit of a formidable warrior. Spiritually, he is quite dressed up with no place to go.
When he is offered a job as a mercenary to train Japanese Imperial troops, he is thrust into circumstances which forge a destiny that finally fulfills who he really is: a warrior who needs something worthy of fighting for. Though duty may call us to sell our soul, we may yet redeem ourselves if but we find the good fight. Honor best serves that which is honorable, or, perhaps, that which we genuinely love. These things may be enough to define a life of purpose.
The storyline here is not all that clever and is in most respects, quite predictable. It is the journey of Algren's character within the framework of this yarn that is most compelling and is played to a T by Cruise.
This is a film that is definitely worth seeing. Though the plot is a touch thin on the ground, the writing is superb, with moral and spiritual questions explored in a thoughtful manner. The production is mesmerizing and Cruise is well supported by a solid ensemble well directed by Ed Zwick.
Lost at sea.
I was really disappointed by this film. The reviews were good and the tomatoe meter was a solid 84.
I guess I just don't get it.
Things start off, quite literally, with a bang that promises us a captivating seafaring adventure.
Then there is a pause while the ship is repaired and we are introduced, courted by, and finally married to, a depth of authenticity that infuses this film with all the excitement of a Ken Burns documentary.
And the pause continues. After a while, I realized the pause was the movie.
The real problem here is that Peter Weir couldn't seem to decide what story he wanted to tell. Is it about the captain of a frigate, a simmering pacifistic naturalist and his protoge or the grain count of planks used in a frigate? The answer is: all three.
What it isn't about is a sea battle. There are times when the film seems to say to us, "Oh yeah, that sea battle thing, guess we better baste that a little."
Certainly lacking a sextant, compass and map, this movie just wanders around through a boring series of listless scenes occasionally punctuated by something exciting.
Oh, yeah, and there is a solid 15-20 minutes of screentime devoted to the ship in the duldrums. No kidding.
Wait for this one to come out on HBO. Or PBS, maybe.
Like many who grew up privately indulging the mythology of Episode IV, I felt betrayed by Episode I. Episode II is a redemption of sorts, both artistically and technically.
Some have commented that Episode II is marginally better than Episode I. This is not true - Episode II is *much* better. I boycotted Episode II in the theaters and, having seen it on HBO, regret not being able to see it on the big screen.
The story and plot are actually interesting. There's some intrigue and suspense here that keeps your attention. Characters, both real and virtual, are actually developed and have depth and complexity. This, to me, was the most significant improvement. The acting was better, the dialog - for the most part - was better. I actually cared about these characters and their fate. Ewan McGregor in particular honed the art of acting opposite a non-existant player. Hayden Christensen plays Annikan as a young man struggling with a brewing conflict within. Fits of rage are matched by a valient struggle at reconcilliation as he slowly loses control to the Dark Side. Annikan arcs from benign mischief to agregious outrage - we know there is something seriously wrong with this boy by the time the movie is over. Compared to the cartoonish adventures of Annikan in Episode I, this portrayal is far more sophisticated and refined. There are no Oscar (copyright, tm, etc.) moments here, but this is a real movie with real acting and a real story.
The integration of the virtual environment has improved, as well. The environment manages to serve as a stage rather than a seperate character and it's much easier to believe that these people are in the environment rather than in front of it. It's less cluttered and old-fashioned cinematography and composition are taken more seriously this time around. The last 20 minutes or so are astounding. Curiously, the world of Ipisode II is clean to the point of being anticeptic - unlike the "lived-in" feel of the older episodes. At the same time, ILM still manages to indulge itself on occasion and we are subjected to some video-game sequences here and there. I really with they would avoid these.
Another major difference in Episode II is that George Lucas has taken his world more seriously. The world of Star Wars is still a bloodless one, but combat in Episode II is more brutal, more savage, more violent. People and creatures actually die. Warfare is not taken as lightly this time around, despite the insistance on comic relief interwoven during fights.
And, a sure indicator that Lucas really was listening and tried to improve: We have a lot less Jar-Jar. He's still there, but not as much and he talks even less. Jar-Jar has matured some, too. He's tolerable at least in Episode II.
As those of us who grew up with the Force have matured and moved into the real world, so has Star Wars as portrayed in Episode II. It's more mature. Some innocense has been lost. But the spirit is in tact.
While Episode I was written for my little boy, Episode II was written for me. I would have gladly paid 8 bucks to see the real thing. Probably twice.