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The Black Dahlia (2006)
A mess. De Palma stole two hours of my life, among other crimes committed...
I don't know where to begin. In some ways it'd be easier just to sum up by saying "what?! like, what the hell, dude?," because it's hard to begin or end thoughts about a film that seemed to have neither beginning nor (in more ways than one) end. For that matter, the sandwich-oriented two-word review alleged in the classic "This Is Spinal Tap" would be entirely appropriate.
The positive: it's nicely shot.
The negative: everything else.
The acting's okay in parts but I can safely say all the principals have been better in other properties. The script and direction conspire to make this an incomprehensible mess, one that also has pretty much nothing at all to do with the reality of the Black Dahlia case (so much so, in fact, that I don't see any point at all in including that murder, let alone naming the film in its honor). Not having anything to do with the the actual case would be okay, really, if the film had at least one thing worth recommending other than the catchy title and the promise inherent in the same (an unsolved and very sensational murder; "Zodiac" did that very well).
At the 84-minute mark, despite having yet to make any sense of this monumental pile of ego-driven self-indulgent crap, I thought perhaps some kind of blessed conclusion to the film was imminent. But, no; sadly, I had another 26 or so minutes left to endure. Admittedly, about 20 minutes later the story started to resolve itself just a little, although Frau Blücher ("whinnnnnnyyyy") delivering her demented soliloquy didn't exactly act to clarify anything, but when the film finally lurched to the glorious sight of a fade-to-black I was still left wondering what, exactly, I'd just watched.
I'm not saying that films should always spoonfeed us the plot, or that a non-traditional narrative or one that's more than a little off-kilter or nonlinear doesn't have worth when executed well, but this film just plain makes (almost) no sense right from the start and proudly never lets up with its puerile nonsense. I have a feeling that the hour De Palma cut from his original print would almost certainly not explain more but, rather, would merely increase the length of an audience's suffering, perhaps finding new ways to totally lose even the most careful follower of whatever it is that in this case stands in for narrative. It's enough to make Richard Simmons frown. I mean, it's really BAD.
"LA Confidential" covers some of the same ground and is not only a more successful attempt at a modern, color ode to film noir but features a story that actually makes sense and characters that we might actually care about or at least see as human archetypes. If you want to approximate this trainwreck of a film without actually exposing yourself to its corrosive nastiness (nastiness is fine, in its place, but in this case it's redeemed by, well, NOTHING), play the "LA Confidential" DVD backwards while listening to "Revolution #9" frontwards and banging yourself on the head with a rolled up copy of "Pretentious Auteur" magazine. De Palma has made some good films; this is most definitely not one of them. In fact, this is the film that should be shown to all who aspire to celluloid creativity so that they might learn from the errors of Brian's ways and, we hope, not inflict upon us the horror of anything remotely like this film getting a big budget and wide release despite being several steps below "Sweet Movie" in terms of palatability and comprehensibility. And, predictably, some who actually claim to have found worth in this waste of money, talent, and film stock seem to assume that they're privy to some truth that eludes the ignorant hoi polloi who dismiss the piece (these are possibly some of the same people who liked "Heaven's Gate"); De Palma's massively expensive joke is on them.
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Might've been good in Hitchcock's hands (or pretty much anyone else's)...
It seems that Mamet is one of the Wunderkinder to many, who can do no wrong on stage or screen. Bleh. I've seen a few of the films he's written and, yeah, they tend to be very good. I barely remember "Heist"but vaguely recall that it seemed to go nowhere pretty quickly; I'm sure I enjoyed it to at least some extent merely as a result of the presence of Gene Hackman, one of those actors who elevates anything he's in solely by virtue of his presence. Unfortunately, Mr Hackman wasn't in "The Spanish Prisoner," though I think the main problem here is that a real director wasn't directing the thing.
Early on in the piece I was trying to reconcile what I've always heard Mamet was noted for -- realistic dialog -- with the garbage I was hearing the actors on screen parrot. 'Parrot' being, given Mamet's way of working with actors (well, 'dictating to' is probably more correct), definitely the word. Part of the problem was quoting ancient Phoenician poets or whatever the hell much of the early dialog consisted of, a trait absent in 99% of the world's relatively sane population and less convincing when the direction comes from a man who seems (understandable, from a writer's perspective, as it may be) a total control freak when it comes to actors delivering his dialog. The fact that Ricky Jay (who, though a cool dude, is a very obviously limited and self-conscious 'actor') delivers some of these lines probably has less to do with their failure than Mamet's helming the affair.
I mean, I've spent my fair share of time in some quite diverse subcultures and seen a fair bit of the world, spending a great many years in academia and the like as well as, in common with probably most Americans, in the middle of crowds of people who appear to be Method actors auditioning for "Idiocracy 2," and neither intelligentsia nor your basic Joe Halfwits talk anything like Mamet's model in this film. Oh, so the dialog's STYLIZED? Well, whoop-de-doo; if it's stylized, maybe he didn't stylize it ENOUGH because, really, it's not that interesting. And its delivery in this film is pretty uniformly stilted, wooden, and unconvincing. That's both the fault of the words themselves and of their delivery, but in this case I think we can deflect the blame for that away from the actors (well, most of them) and toward the Director who rules delivery of his sacred dialog with an iron fist. The whole also feels very _stagey_, as in old Dave forgetting or not knowing that film is inherently a different kind of medium than stage performance.
I have the feeling that many who've reviewed this film are praising Mamet because it's the done thing to do. That the emperor's clothes are, at best, somewhat threadbare is of no apparent concern. The plot's interesting enough, though largely predictable fairly early on (and I am one who tends to let myself get immersed in a good movie, who's not ashamed that he didn't see the twists coming in films like "The Usual Suspects" and "The Sixth Sense") and suffering from a tendency toward hammering us over the head with clues, whether real or false. Overall, I think, if this film's any indication then Mamet's work is at its best when directed by someone else. Obviously I have little on which to base this (like I said, I barely remember "Heist" and this one's cured me of any tendency to want to rush out to watch any further Mamet-directed films) but from watching other films for which he only has writer's credit I get the impression that his dialog and plots are far more effective in the hands of directors (and editors) who feel free to play a little more fast and loose with those structures and with actors who're working without metronomes.
Sure, some actors may be thrilled to speak Mamet's words but I know a lot of actors would probably hate working with someone who demanded such absolute control over what was coming out of an actor's mouth. There's inherently a conflict between those who make the film and those who write it, but this film's one indication of how much weaker a film can be when the writer's vision is all that matters. Forcing stutters, incomplete sentences and repetition is NOT the magic key to writing realistic dialog and, anyway, a competent actor (or a halfway-competent actor under competent direction) should be able to improvise such realistic dialog delivery around the lines on the screenplay that, yeah, more often than not probably ARE too clean and neat to reflect real dialog. Mamet's a good writer, sometimes, but the fact that he's recognized that real speech includes stops and starts and tangents doesn't mean he's qualified to make a film that's any more realistic than average and when he does give such a try and fails it's a cop-out to claim that the reason it's not realistic is because it's "stylized," or "hyper-realistic," or that perhaps we just don't understand and couldn't begin to fathom the genius of the man.
I've seen worse -- the recent "The Marine" still stands proudly high as one of the worst films I've seen, largely because I probably ruled out a lot more worthy candidates before I actually tried to watch them -- but this film's a bit of a dud, largely because it's mostly just a non-event and even the climaxes are anticlimactic. The pity is that it's one that probably could have been three or four times as interesting, suspenseful, and engaging if directed by any of the directors who've made successes out of other Mamet scripts. At the very least, it'd have been nice if the movie was as interesting as the blurb on its DVD case...
Did you...? Ahhh... Yes, I...yes, I said that. I did. But...well...never mind. Fishes fly hale, more's the pity.
Professione: reporter (1975)
I just finished watching it and I already like it more now than I did when it finished
I was admittedly rather tired last night when I fell asleep early on in this film but when I went back to the beginning and tried again I discovered that, tired or not, the film is really pretty stultifying in some ways; it's easy to break concentration or just plain doze off while watching a film like this. It's sloooooooow. With a lot more 'o's than I've used, even. 'Deliberately paced' doesn't cut it as a euphemism this time, I'm afraid. And I am not of the MTV Generation, though early on in the piece I simultaneously wondered if (a) this was going to be one of those meandering films that doesn't tell you anything, even if not overtly telling you or spoonfeeding the audience, and (b) that even in today's cinema where average shot lengths of a few seconds duration are considered 'lingering,' having shot lengths that appear to be on average about 25 minutes was not really much of an antidote.
Soon enough, though, my fears were at least partially allayed when a bit of the backstory filled in. Yeah, to Antonioni all that may matter at first is that the dude's looking for something, whereas we quite naturally want some idea of what exactly he's doing; I can't begrudge the director for making us wait a while longer for that information, really. To be honest, though, the story's still a little confusing and kind of wanders here and there, but somehow I get the feeling that the director was less interested in telling a narrative story and more interested in painting a visual journey. To me, really, that's what saved the film and makes it worth watching and already increasingly estimable in my view.
In a more conventional film, perhaps Jack's character would have continued the charade and gone further into the arms-dealing world (in fact, that's what I thought he was, as a journalist, doing all along) but if that was his intent it's sure not very clear. And, again, in the end it doesn't really matter (not to say that such a story wouldn't make a great film in its own right!).
The film is stunningly framed and shot and composed very thoughtfully. That much is obvious from the opening frames. Magnificent use of locations, too, and of local people. Even though, at first (and, ultimately, at the end) I wasn't sure what was happening, I still enjoyed watching the screen and seeing those impressive visuals unfold. The film is of its time in that the pacing is NOT of breakneck velocity, and of course I love the '70s-ness of the dress and all of that cool stuff, but it's shot with such care and timeless vision that the actual film itself and the way the pictures unfold is anything but dated and, in fact, still holds its own among the best products of contemporary directors influenced by the likes of this guy.
Maria Schneider has an alluring quality about her and all the rest of the players involved are fine, but it's Jack's film. It may be his best screen performance, at least of the ones I've seen, and at the very least it's certainly high on the list. I just recently saw him in "The Crossing Guard," in which I thought he revealed again just how good he can be, but here he is similarly perfectly natural and very much believable in the role. I'm neither a huge fan nor a huge detractor of jack Nicholson, and even when I think he's just kind of walking through his role or phoning it in -- and, really, he DOES play 'Jack' a LOT -- he's still a compelling presence and his stock Jack character remains an appealing one. Here he's even better than usual. He has to be, too, because all those great visuals alone aren't enough to carry a film.
In the end, what made me like this film and feel compelled to write about it is that the director's incredible abilities (coupled with, I assume, input from a very talented DP and others) created a visual tapestry that made the main character's external and internal journeys come alive. The acting was good, too, and a few of the lines very much packed with universal truths. That final shot is the real payoff, in some ways, because it really sums up how this film makes its point; at first I started to wonder just when the camera was going to cut to, you know, like, TELL US THE STORY, but suddenly I became aware of something very odd ("hey, wasn't the camera behind bars a second ago?") and as it continued I sat there quite literally amazed at the skill of this filmmaker. It's like the long-lost twin of the opening to "Touch Of Evil," separated by a couple of decades but very much a similar device and just as skilfully rendered. The fact that a brief perusal of this discussion board reveals I was likely wrong in my conclusion regarding the rather open-ended final scene (to be honest, me thinking that our hero had killed the bad guy and escaped in the driving-school car was a result of paying more attention by that point to that amazing shot than to some of the actual details within it). Then again, I think, the actual story was not really the movie's point.
I may never again feel the need to see this film again, but the fact that I already like it more than when I finished watching it, and the mere fact of that almost-final shot EXISTING, says a lot about this film's impact. Glad I woke up for it...
The Martian Chronicles (1980)
I miss the '70s
Really, the '70s, looking back now, seem like some mythic age when all seemed possible. Well, yeah, okay, there IS A degree of myth there and much of what the '70s really were was hardly paradise (the legacy of Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, leisure suits, etc) but, for me, my lingering and increasingly nostalgic affection for the decade is largely forgivable on the grounds that I was a kid then and so a good deal of that affection is more a yearning for the simpler times of kidhood than any particular era's social or other trappings. Still, I think it's undeniable that some pop-cultural highs remain from the '70s -- look at all the truly great films made then, especially by what you might call the American New Wave (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, etc) -- and if you were to look at any Top 40 chart from, say, 1973 you'd see that in those days some stellar music came right to you via pop radio, unlike the garbage on the Top 40 today. In those days, you didn't have to dig deeply to seek it out as you have to do now if you want to hear anything but committee-written, autotuned corporate pablum with synthesized backing music 'sung' by manufactured and largely interchangeable plastic stars-de-jour, country music these days hardly offering refuge 'cos it's mostly the same stuff with steel guitar and hats added. Besides, I'll never get over my devotion to the phenomenon known as "The Six Million Dollar Man," Big Jim dolls....um...ACTION FIGURES...and, yeah, that poster of Farrah. All this basically explains why I'm willing to overlook the '70s stamp that's all over this production. I'm not talking about the production values and special effects -- hey, they're a product of their time and the TV budget, and to their credit are not distractingly bad -- but the hair styles, flared pants, and uniforms that bear more than passing resemblance to the infamous leisure suit. And, yes, it's good to know that disco is alive and well in the piece's 2004 (actually, I guess disco really WAS alive and well in the REAL 2004, as it turned out, and flared pants even made a comeback...the miniseries is more visionary than it might have seemed had we seen it in the pegged-pants '80s). In fact, to me, the '70s touch is one of the cool things about this work.
I have to say that, overall, the miniseries is pretty draggy. It kind of belabors a few points beyond all reason, using ('wasting' would be another word) precious screen time, and here I'd like to point out that I don't believe myself to be either especially short on the attention span side nor a product of the MTV Generation's need for quick cuts and rapid resolutions. From what I've read so far here on IMDb, even the book's author concurred on that point. I should mention that I never read the book(s) and I understand that some of the difficulties I had with this piece (like the totally illogical evacuation of Martian colonists to an Earth on the verge of global nuclear destruction) were in the source material. Yeah, it could have been speedier, and yeah it's stepped in the look and feel of its time, but I did come away from the epic with the word 'interesting' foremost in my mind. Not great, but not bad, either.
There're some great actors aboard. When I discovered that watching this was going to be a lengthy exercise (I'd never heard of it before, though I'd heard of the book, and when I grabbed it at my local library I just figured it'd be worth risking two hours of my time to watch it) it was the list of credited actors that swayed me to watch the thing. Rock Hudson, a few years before his very unfortunate decline and demise, looks as rocky as ever but is never really fully engaged. He's not anywhere near bad, but he's not really pulling out all the stops (if you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" if you have never seen the Rock as anything but a relative lightweight, acting-wise), but he sure looks good and carries about him that certain air of authority and gravity. Most of the other actors with substantial parts at the very least acquit themselves well, and it's great to see some of them in action (though some, like Roddy McDowell, get little play). Bernie Casey is, as usual, very good in his role that becomes more interesting just before he's taken out of the picture. Christopher Connelly as the increasingly flustered Average Joe and Bernadette Peters as the vain goddess combine to provide what may be my favorite part of this episodic compendium. The most excellent Darren McGavin, a few years out of Kolchak and a bit before "Christmas Story" is a real highlight, as always. He was a comedy classic, wherever he showed up, even in the most serious roles. A national treasure, no less, greatly missed. Nice to see Spiderman on Mars, too. Wasn't that a David Bowie project, Spiderman on Mars? Not all the acting is top-notch and, indeed, some of it (especially from secondary characters) is stilted and as cardboard as can be, basically a lot less convincing than acting in the average TV commercial (Keanu Reeves is Olivier compared to some in this cast).
Overall, I'd recommend this for the patient viewer who's able to weather a bit of thumb-twiddling while waiting for some actor to deliver some portentous line or emotion that we already saw coming and have had explained to us once already, about five seconds before. It's...well, it is...it's _interesting_.
Grace Is Gone (2007)
I happened to see this at my local library and, generally liking John Cusack even in lesser properties (really, "2012" takes the big-dumb-blockbuster movie template to a ridiculous level, but it's still watchable in part because of oddballs like Cusack and Woody H.), thought I'd give it a try even though it sounded a tad more somber than what I was in the mood for. I'm glad I watched it. I like 'road movies,' anyway, and this one is built around that classic structure, but there's a lot more said in this film than is actually SAID.
A perusal of comments regarding this film reveals the not surprising ability of _Moron americanus_ to totally miss the point, in this case that group being divided about equally into people who bemoan the fact that every facet of the film was not laid out for them and explained at length, undoubtedly using small words, and those who in true knee-jerk manner decry the whole as 'liberal' propaganda or anti-American, whatever THAT is supposed to mean in today's USA. The first criticism stems, I think, from the film being one that includes some relatively subtle and quite realistic (i.e., not always making narrative sense) aspects to the storyline and the characters' journeys. The second criticism is, predictably, totally off target. This film has no political agenda, at least not one that's going to hit any sane person over the head. The main character's brother gets in a few jibes about the Bush Jr maladministration but he's not without flaws himself and his more hawkish, neocon-enabling brother is similarly not devoid of sense or perspective. The actor and citizen John Cusack IS one of the people who, like me, sees the whole Iraq fiasco as not just flawed from the start but massively criminal (not at the level of those sent abroad to prosecute the war but at the level of the chickenhawks in DC and elsewhere who blithely sent them) but, to his and the film's credit, his character in this piece does not have some sudden epiphany at film's end and start wearing Birkenstocks and sipping lattes.
The bottom line, to my mind, is that in this film the tragedy at the story's core happens to be one with military context but that, when it comes down to it, the very touching and well-presented (cutting to the music was a good touch) beach scene near the end could be ANY situation wherein a parent is telling his or her children that the other parent has died. That's what I felt, anyway, that the film was far more universally relevant and that particular scene universally applicable; to me, that's what made it even more sad, thinking of how many millions of people over the years, around the world, have had moments like that.
The acting is perfect. The two kids are excellent in what, so far, remains the sole film role for each. John Cusack is great, too, not only playing against type to a degree but playing his part completely convincingly. And when I saw the music was by Clint Eastwood I, of course, immediately wondered "THE Clint Eastwood?" -- his music is fitting and used very effectively. A talented man, is old Clint.
Some very good actors and beautiful cinematography...the movie's total garbage, though
Just watched this dreck, forcing myself to persist through its blessed end (more blessed had Lewellen been fatally bitten by a rattler as she waltzed away). The good news is that the film's well shot and somewhat evocative of the South, albeit with typical stereotypes firmly in place. Lots of heavy-handed symbolism, too, the most obvious being the snakes.
Also, most of the actors are top-notch, though they've all been better than in this morass, likely thanks to superior scripting and directing in other properties. David Morse is always great and stands out here for maintaining a little integrity within the story's confines; actually, I think he'd make a great "Simple Jack" if the producers of "Tropic Thunder" decide to greenlight that project. Piper Laurie is good, too, though her role's small and one-dimensional. Granoldo Frazier's a very appealing screen presence with great gravitas despite his role being largely a cliché, the so-called 'Magic Negro' visible in a plethora of films running the gamut from "The Shining" to "The Toy" (not a hallmark of BAD films, necessarily -- many such films are very good -- but undeniably a stock cliché so venerable that if you're going to add to the subgenre you'd better make it a good one).
Dakota Fanning is hard to take here. I remember being taken aback by her competence as an actor in earlier films, and NOT just in light of her extreme youth. But in "War Of The Worlds" she was just terminally annoying. To be fair, any little kid and most adults facing invasion by aliens that nasty would probably spend a good deal of the time screaming and collapsing into gibbering heaps of protoplasm, but it wasn't the situational reactions of her character that bothered me so much as a very tangible sense that, somehow, throughout she's just a little too CONSCIOUS that she's acting, and it shows. It seemed, to me, that she's basically screaming with every line and every look "LOOK! I'm an ACTOR! And I'm a REALLY GOOD ONE!!" In this "Hounddog" fiasco I get exactly the same feeling, and it both distracts and undermines the film, or WOULD undermine the film if the film wasn't flawed fatally from the outset. Actually, I thought that young Cody Hanford, as Buddy, was far more convincing and natural in his role and how he played it.
The film is badly directed. The story's pretty stultifying, anyway. There're a few places where things aren't too clear; the one that had me most adrift was when Robin Wright Penn's character has her car towed and leaves. There're some true Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments, too, like the caretaker having Big Mama Thornton ensconced in his hayloft and apparently being familiar with the process for making snake antivenin from scratch (okay, that one's slightly more plausible).
I'm a big-time Elvis fan and student of the man's career and so, of course, this film's LOADS of fun for me, or would be if I actually ENJOYED running across rampant and unnecessary inaccuracies. This sort of thing is standard in film but in this case you're talking about a man whose OBSCURE songs are familiar only to a few MILLION and the errors in this film were totally avoidable; correcting them wouldn't at all have diminished the integrity of the piece. First, I find it really, really hard to believe that Lewellen, of all people, would blissfully ignore the fact that the volume was turned down on Elvis during his controversial airing of "Hound Dog" on Milton Berle's TV show and even harder to believe that she'd turn her back to the silent screen while performing her imitation (an imitation based on that very broadcast). Okay, cinematic license but, still... Regardless, given that even the richest families in the '50s didn't have VCRs or Tivo, this scene sets the date as June 5, 1956. It's hard to figure what time-traveling magic allows Lewellen to buy a copy of "Peace In The Valley" (that Elvis recorded in January, 1957) and go even further into the future to learn the lyrics to Elvis' 1961 movie song "Can't Help Falling In Love." Just to add to the fun, when the big night of Elvis' show arrives he can be heard singing "Love Me Tender" with the '70s arrangement, another totally unnecessary and conscious goof. Further, and here I realize that artistic license trumps all, Elvis didn't play anywhere in Alabama during 1956 (or 1957); his final concert in the state, until he returned on tour in September of 1970, was in Montgomery on December 3, 1955. The same error's present in "Heart Of Dixie." Still, these anachronisms are not as bad as the execrable "Cadillac Records," a nicely shot and dressed film with great music and great acting that falsely and terribly accuses a real living (well, dead, now) person of outright murder and, admittedly not quite as bad, shows Elvis in 1956 film footage dubbed to a 1969 performance of "My Babe" on TV and shows jail-bound Chuck Berry looking at (if I recall correctly) Army footage of Elvis, proclaiming something about this being the new King, and all of this AFTER the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys entered the narrative, leading me to the obvious conclusion that Elvis Presley, influenced by the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and that famed gunslinger Little Walter, didn't begin his professional rise until about 1968 or 1969.
People, when you insert one of the most famous and scrutinized people in HISTORY into your films, be ready for some nitpicking. Do it well and we'll forgive you. Do it badly, or in a bad film (like this one), and we'll call you on it.
In the end, the only part of this film worth a damn was in the trailer: Elvis (impersonator Ryan Pelton, who manages a good likeness) blowing the kiss to Lewellen. That was pretty cool.
Ying xiong (2002)
The proverbial visual feast
"Hero" is simply magnificent to behold. It'd be amazing on the big screen, but it's beautiful enough even on my more modest TV. The use of color and landscape, along with close-ups and judicious slow-motion, is masterful. I've seen it twice now and twice it's held me spellbound. Its deliberate (okay...slow!) pacing is fine, because it's not like I wanted the sight and feel of the film to leave me any time soon. Talk about an epic.
I'm a Sinophile from way back and a traditional martial artist (Chinese arts...various styles of 'kung fu' as they're colloquially known) so films like this are something of a dichotomy to me. On the one hand, I can really appreciate the fight sequences and the techniques involved, even if some of the actors are not and have never been martial artists but are carefully choreographed in the action. For that matter, Jet Li and many others in such films are certainly legitimate martial artists but their background is typically less traditional martial arts than the showy new-era performance wushu along with training in Peking Opera and thorough grounding in 'film-fu' (no big surprise: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and others had such backgrounds). Regardless, the kungfoolery on display in such movies can be inspiring and, yes, people like Jet Li and Donnie Yen are not only in incredibly good physical condition but are phenomenally fast (and accurate). On the other hand, as a disciple of real martial arts who is often amazed by the capabilities of many within that world, the whole idea of having actors fly about on wires can often subvert the enjoyment of action scenes. I know it's done all the time, in Hong Kong and Hollywood and elsewhere, but I'd generally rather see a real display of martial arts, even if it's unrealistic in comparison to a real street fight (in length and clarity of execution, if nothing else), than someone obviously bouncing around on wires. Really, though, the only times this REALLY gets to me is in films that purport to be to at least some degree realistic; when I saw "Romeo Must Die," for example, I was totally turned off by the too-obvious wire work and puzzlement over why they had to resort to having a very competent and flashy martial films star like Jet Li flying around like some marionette. In films like "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- and the many older Shaw and Golden Harvest films that came before them -- the wire work may cause a slight wince or two from me at first but, really, such stories are Chinese fairy tales and when you see them in that context all is well...two men skipping about on a lake is obviously not, no matter how entrenched the old fables of the capabilities of the ancient Shaolin warriors and the like, cinema verité. It's highly, highly unlikely that any human, ever, unassisted by various aircraft, rocket packs, or wires, danced atop a forest canopy. At some point, laws of physics do operate. So, yeah, this is a lyrical fairytale and if they really need to invoke flight as a human power then that's their prerogative. Either way, scenes like the lake chase/dance in this film are pure cinematic magic; that was a particularly beautifully presented scene.
The use of color in this film is incredible. It's also very obviously intentionally designed to delineate certain narratives. I'm not entirely sure what the significance of each color is, though I have my ideas, but that's not really the point. It works. And it looks GREAT.
The acting...just right. Mostly very solemn and somber, on the verge of being overdone, but it works in the context of this film and its meaning. All of the principals have great screen presence. Donnie Yen and Jet Li are obviously the martial standouts, but the other three warriors also manage to convince that they're near-immortal fighters.
The kick in the tale (pun intended) here is the film's final outcome. Kind of surprised me but, really, if you consider that the film was enthusiastically supported by the People's Republic of China -- you know, the outfit who for so long dedicated themselves to destroying pretty much every aspect of Chinese culture depicted and celebrated in the film (to the extent that, since the Cultural Revolution, the best proponents of traditional culture, from cooking to martial arts, have been located OUTSIDE China) -- it makes sense. Yep, the commies-in-charge (who are really nowadays just ruthless-capitalist-DRESSED-as-commies, though mostly now without the little Mao suits) would be happy with the ending, I think. They might miss a couple of veiled jabs along the way, though. Besides, there's always been a part of Chinese culture and society that responds strongly to autocratic rule or to authority in general, whether the dictates of feudal lords, Confucianism, Qin Dynasty legalism, Maoism, or whatever. Anyway, the eventual outcome of the film WAS the eventual outcome for China, united in 221 BC by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (who did, indeed, weather assassination attempts). He was a great man. Which is to say that he was a visionary and a tyrant in equal measure. But he sure as hell got the job done.
The ancient and violent growing pains of a great empire aside, and the current political message none too subtly on display in parts, this film is a beautiful thing to behold and it translates well in any language, in any culture.
The Awful Truth (1937)
Every moment pure gold...
They really don't make 'em like this any more. I mean, really. Sure, dialog in films since the '60s, and certainly the '70s, has tended to become more naturalistic and the acting less stylized and 'stagey' than in the old days, but somewhere along the way, amidst all the gains in technology and (sometimes) realism, we lost something. One of the things we lost, I think, was the ability to write, direct, and act pieces such as this. I don't know exactly why this is so but, excellent as many of Hollywood's current actors are, I am not sure that something like this could be pulled off as well today. For one, I think that today's writers and directors, even some of the better ones, tend to cater to a greater degree to the lowest common denominator; compounding that, I'd assert that even with advances in educational resources, technology, and the fabric of society (civil rights, etc, though like these others such facets of American society have been greatly eroded of late), the lowest common denominator today is lower than it was in 1937.
Regardless, this film is a gem from start to finish, in every way. Even the dog, that weird-looking little beast that shows up again in "Bringing Up Baby," is a sterling actor; indeed, he's better in his role and more convincing a thespian than many of today's so-called stars. The writing is incredible. Like the way the film's structured, the dialog is clever (I understand that much of it was improvised, testament to the quality of actors involved working with an already great script) and the themes and situations are ones that transcend time, no matter how long ago the '30s might seem to most of us. It's madcap but it's not too much, and there are many points during which I think the filmmakers were pushing the boundaries to see just how far they could go in that heavily-restricted age of film. Obscene or vulgar language and the like can be funny in the right context (or, obviously, reinforce or suggest other emotions) but there may be some truth also in that old saying to the effect that yelling obscenities, or just pouring them forth as part of normal dialog, indicates a lack of anything more erudite to say. In there, I think, you also find part of the key to what made this older comedies so perfect and so timeless; innuendo, no matter how obscure (even if it goes over many heads) is almost always far more interesting and humorous than a full-frontal attack on the senses. Of course, the makers of these old films had little choice but sometimes out of necessity comes a level of genius and craftsmanship that surpasses by far what might have been the more unfettered route to telling the story.
Have I mentioned that the dialog is great? Check this example out:
Lucy : Well, I mean, if you didn't feel that way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.
Jerry : But things are the way you made them.
Lucy : Oh, no. No, things are the way you THINK I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.
I started watching old movies like these, after two or more decades of mostly viewing movies from the '70s and later, when a few viewings of Sergio Leone films got me interested in that director's influences and from there I went to Kurosawa, back to his idol John Ford, and then Howard Hawks and John Huston and so on, starting to re-explore offerings by Bogart, Cary Grant, and others, including some classic films that I don't think I've ever seen ("Gunga Din," for example). Right now I'm in the midst of a major Cary Grant kick -- the man was brilliant on film and was one who could crack the audience up with a single facial expression or slay 'em with a deft one-liner -- and so this film more than satisfies. It's also the film that really catapulted him into the big time once and for all. Irene Dunn is easily his equal in the sparring on screen (she's incredible in this film,and gets to wear some far-out, glamorous clothes and funky li'l hats) and, indeed, all involved are tremendous in their roles. Cecil Cunningham for example, as Aunt Patsy, has few lines but almost all of them are real zingers. It's a perfect blend of slapstick, farce, and deeper insight kept moving along relentlessly, but digestibly, by a highly professional cast and a director at the top of his game.
I've actually heard people disdain older movies because they're in back-and-white (and even, for that matter, newer movies shot monochrome). They're missing out on a vast legacy of brilliant storytelling and film-making from around the world: not just treasures from Hollywood's most golden Golden Age but wonders like Russia's "Ivan's Childhood," "Yojimbo," and so many more as well as movies made in Hollywood as late as the '60s and '70s that intentionally used monochrome (Frankenheimer's "Seconds" and, of course, "Psycho" and many other masterpieces). Besides, the expert cinematographers who shot many such films, both through careful use of light and filters and through the vivid clarity of their work, actually manage to suggest color where none is present.
This one's loaded with color, and fun, and it really is a film that stands up today as it always will. Thank goodness we have such archival materials as videotape and digitized discs that not only ensure the preservation of such treasures but allow us to call them up whenever we wish to be really entertained.
Captains Courageous (1937)
A ripping good yarn, as effective today as way back when
This is one of those films I recall very fondly from my childhood (on TV in the '70s, I hasten to add, my having been born three decades too late to catch its original release) and now, after having watched it again for the first time in probably 30 or 35 or so years, I recall it just as fondly. It's a classic tale from Kipling, a potent mix of morality play and coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a hazardous and hard-earned way to make a living. The fishing and sailing scenes are, as others have noted, very realistically presented and I see I am not alone in noticing that the actors were capable enough with their marine duties to make it look like they really WERE old hands at that sort of thing (something I noticed first with Mickey Rooney, who carried on his tasks with great efficiency, as if they were second nature, even while delivering dialog...his presence in the film is small but it's still a real standout).
This film is loaded to the gunwales with talented actors, including some of the all-time greats. The incomparable Spencer Tracy, for example, is magnificent (and, yes, the scene where he faces down Carradine's character, with real menace suddenly supplanting his otherwise easy-going demeanor is a very powerful moment), and he here again proves why he is considered one of the very best actors to ever have worked in Hollywood. Lionel Barrymore is absolute perfection as the skipper, totally convincing in every detail. John Carradine, too, is 100% believable and a magnetic screen presence even by now. Melvyn Douglas, too, has captured a very nuanced and understated take on a character who is not in most of the picture but who is vital to its working. Every other actor in the ensemble delivers, too, just right.
Young Freddie Bartholomew, of course, has the significant burden of basically carrying the film -- somewhat daunting even if your co-stars didn't include such as Tracy and Barrymore -- and he succeeds magnificently. He's utterly on target and convincing as the spoiled little brat who finally gets shaped into some sort of a better person, on the road to being a better man than he would have been had he not fallen off that ship. He's really a wonder in this film, perhaps one of the very best child actors ever. The depth of his hero-worship and love for Manuel, who he obviously contrasts to his more distant and workaholic father, is tangible and touching. He may be young still but, by the end, he's a man, or well on his way to being a real man, and not the kind of 'real man' who's some overbearing macho blowhard; he's had better examples than that aboard the schooner and his father's own journey, off-camera, suggests he'll do his best to be such an example. Manuel would have been very proud.
Into the Wild (2007)
(1) Brilliant film (2) the protagonist and his story is simultaneously inspiring and idiotic
Sean Penn and crew did an excellent job here. Cinematography and editing are great and real locations are used to full potential. Emile Hirsch is phenomenal and Hal Holbrook also really stands out. Special mention of Brian Dierker, acting for the first and (so far) only time, as Rainey: a feat even if he IS basically that character, because getting in front of a camera instantly turns most of us into anything but who we naturally are. His chemistry with Catherine Keener is stellar and the two are part of the film's heart and soul.
Supertramp's journey is compelling in many ways, whether followed by book or by film. But there's much polarization regarding whether Alex/Chris was a visionary prophet of the road (or, at the very least, a free spirit on a Thoreau kick) or an utterly self-indulgent moron. I'm one who emphatically sees him as BOTH, and then some.
I grew up in settings that allowed me access to a lot of outdoor experience, including formative years living at an outdoor-pursuits center where my parents worked. Thus I had easy entrée to outdoor activity and the tools with which to hone skills necessary to survival in the wild, to deal with things when it all goes wrong (as it surely will) without freaking out excessively and letting panic doom me or anyone else. I also saw for myself that Nature is wonderful and Gaia-licious but that she really doesn't care if we live or die; I see the natural world with both a 'romanticized' and a very pragmatic, survival-based eye, both being part of the truth.
My whole life's involved study of Nature, including years of field research experience (PhD in ecology) diving on coral reefs in far-flung places on the edge of the blue horizon. Did I have near misses with my own mortality during that time? Sure did. Was I 'adventurous'? Well, yeah, in terms of having what might be called 'adventures' in exotic places around dangerous animals (I studied one for my doctorate). I have also more than once hit the road and vagabonded, the longest such bout being at age 20 back in the '80s. So, yeah, I can relate very strongly to Chris' drive, and to what he felt out there on the edge, where you never know from day to day where you'll be at nightfall and, indeed, even if you'll be alive. It's simultaneously exhilarating and scary.
The BIG difference between someone like me and someone like McCandless, though, is that he went flat-out against the wall at every turn, rashly leaping into things way above his head. You can only get away with that kind of thing so long. If I 'have an adventure' I know my capabilities and where they start to fade. It's risk management. Some of what such people do may look bold and brave but you can't tell, from looking, what they're REALLY doing: if they're well trained and aware of the risks and their environment they may actually be playing it quite cautiously within bounds of experience and ability. Film stunt players are good examples, too: what looks totally out of control is actually carefully planned (well, ideally) and rehearsed by specialists. Pushing boundaries is fine but in doing so you want to control the risk you know is there; you may still mess up, but at least the fall may be survivable.
Sometimes you have the adventure and sometimes the adventure has you. The idea is to minimize that last possibility. You must know what you KNOW and know what you DON'T know. Young Chris was woefully unprepared for many of his adventures, pushing boundaries without knowing what they really WERE, careening off boundary after boundary. It's amazing he made it as far as he did. On one level I salute him for that, and admire his zeal and passion, but on another I recognize him as irresponsible and self-centered. He was a sensitive, intelligent, self-indulgent young man with a mind full of pithy quotes and concepts from Literature who failed to see past the most superficial of those lessons and parables. He was an idealist, and I can appreciate that, but he forgot that we all have to get by in the real world and that cost him everything.
Is he the sage hero some proclaim? Well, if his story inspires you, go emulate his ideal but PLEASE first learn a thing or two about what your journey might require. I'm disconcerted to find a whole Internet subculture that basically worships Chris and his folly. Idiots. Chris' death was unnecessary and stupid, but a likely outcome. He basically failed to remain humble in the face of Nature. Whether clueless or arrogant, that sort of thing doesn't make for happy endings. His should be a cautionary tale in this aspect, not an inspirational one.
Regardless, as a film this succeeds on every level; a masterpiece. If it was mythology it'd be just as powerful. Sean Penn comes uncomfortably close at times to painting Chris as Jesus-like, the Magic Hobo, but he does at least acknowledge the cruel effect of Chris deserting his parents (and his sister) and the final realization that his journey's epiphany was, thanks to the Nature in which he sought to immerse himself, impossible to realize. The film also shows that, for all Chris' vaunted self-sufficiency, throughout his travels he relied on help from others, many portrayed as surrogate parental figures: the clues to his final realization were there all along, every step of the way. When he finally found what he wanted it did him no good because he could not go back again. Forget all the back and forth over whether Supertramp was a wise wanderer or a self-indulgent little jerk, really, because this consideration is a timeless thought, and this film manages to convey a few of those.
Excellent job, all involved. Rest in peace, Christopher Johnson McCandless.