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Man on the Moon (1999)
Proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction
Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon" is a biopic of famed entertainer Andy Kaufman, who was a unique individual to say the least. Usually classified as a comedian, Kaufman's antics were the sort that defy easy categorization. He pushed the boundaries of comedy, often challenging audiences with material that was just as likely to result in jeers, boredom and/or discomfort rather than laughter.
In the movie, Jim Carrey plays Andy with total commitment, which is amply demonstrated in this year's feature length documentary "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond". He was denied an Oscar nomination for his efforts but he did snag his second consecutive Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy (having won the previous year for "The Truman Show"). Leaving aside awards recognition, Carrey seemed to capture the spirit of Kaufman's inspired lunacy in what is probably one of his best (semi-) dramatic performances. The supporting cast is also quite intriguing, not the least for including several individuals playing themselves, such as wrestler Jerry Lawler, talk show host David Letterman, "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels and most of the cast of "Taxi". Other notables (not playing themselves) include Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti and Courtney Love. Overall, it's a nicely assembled cast that did Andy proud.
Being based on a true story, the movie's plot probably won't hold too many surprises for die-hard Kaufman fans but others should find it quite interesting. Some of it seems hard to believe but from what I've read it seems that the movie hewed fairly close to the actual events. In fact, even the staging of some scenes closely matches the original television broadcasts. Credit is undoubtedly due to Milos Forman and his crew for bringing the movie to life with keen attention to detail in its period setting. Naturally, with two-time Oscar-winner Forman at the helm, the movie is in good hands from a visual standpoint but the audio department also benefits from a soundtrack that was largely composed by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers R.E.M. This of course includes their classic song that supplied the film with its title.
Ultimately, though, "Man in the Moon" is, like its subject, unlikely to appeal to everyone. Kaufman's antics could sometimes stretch the definition of 'entertainment' but that's what made him so unique. I can see why he didn't consider himself a comedian, which might be a bit of a problem for viewers checking out this movie with an expectation of something resembling mainstream comedy. Personally, I find the movie to be entertaining and memorable both because of and despite its eccentricities.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
"Starship Troopers" meets "Groundhog Day"
Despite the presence of Tom Cruise, "Edge of Tomorrow" is a movie that flew somewhat under the radar back in the summer of 2014. Recouping only $100 million of its $170 million budget in domestic ticket sales, the movie proved to be a box office disappointment. However, it did perform better in foreign markets while also garnering a fair amount of praise from critics.
The movie casts Cruise as Major William Cage, a PR officer with no combat experience who gets demoted to private for disobeying orders on the eve of a massive offensive against an alien force. Thrust into the midst of a heated battle, Cage predictably doesn't last very long but when he dies he immediately wakes up on the previous morning with a full memory of what he has experienced. This sets up the movie's 'time loop' premise, whereby Cage continually dies only to experience the same day over and over again, learning from his mistakes and becoming a hardened combat veteran along the way. This draws obvious comparisons to the comedy classic "Groundhog Day" but in this case the phenomenon is given a scientific explanation. As with "Groundhog Day", the premise is utilized cleverly in the repetition of scenes with variations, often to comic effect. There's plenty of action as well and even some dramatic weight at times. Overall, while the general concept may be somewhat familiar, the story (which was adapted from a Japanese light novel) is one that should satisfy both science fiction fans and general moviegoers alike.
The cast is a pretty good one. Tom Cruise is well suited to his role and he receives excellent support from Emily Blunt, who plays a character that previously had the same condition as Cage. The supporting cast is mostly made up of relative unknowns who are nonetheless authentic. That being said, the supporting cast does include Brendan Gleeson & Bill Paxton, who are always welcome in any movie in which they appear.
Director Doug Liman did a good job here, balancing explosive sci-fi spectacle with lighter moments and even a dash of drama. The special effects are well done in a way that supports the story first and foremost, without drawing excessive attention to themselves. Both visually & musically, the movie is well executed though not necessarily exceptional. Probably the best technical aspect of the film is the editing, which is especially important in a movie with an unconventional narrative like this.
Overall, "Edge of Tomorrow" is a finely tuned action movie with a pair of first-rate performances and a clever, absorbing plot. The reasons for its relatively lukewarm reception are anyone's guess but I suspect that American audiences probably just didn't have much interest in seeing Tom Cruise in another sci-fi action movie (particularly after the previous year's similarly tepid response to "Oblivion"). In any case, "Edge of Tomorrow" is well worth watching, both for fans of science fiction and fans of Tom Cruise in general.
Pâfekuto burû (1997)
A fascinating study of perception & idol worship
"Perfect Blue" is a 1997 anime about a young woman transitioning from a career as a pop idol to a new vocation as a serious actress. She finds that the metamorphosis is not an easy one when she tackles a sexually charged role that upsets her fans. One such fan appears to be stalking her, while her own doubts about this new direction take a toll on her psyche to the point that the line between fantasy & reality begins to become blurred.
Produced on a miniscule budget of three million yen (approx. $25,000 in U.S. dollars), it must be admitted that the movie shows its limitations at times in the animation. That being said, while the visuals aren't exactly elaborate, they're consistently kept fresh with interesting directorial choices and dexterous editing that alternates between fantasy & reality with ease.
The narrative is, to a certain degree, purposely difficult to follow, particularly as the movie progresses and the protagonist's state of mind begins to deteriorate. However, I found it to be adequately comprehensible on my first viewing. I wasn't entirely convinced by a late twist that seemed to come out of left field but I found that it made more sense on a second viewing.
The story combines well-executed elements of the psychological thriller genre with a finale that ventures into more operatic territory reminiscent of Italian giallo. One or both of those approaches may not appeal to all viewers but I find that the movie's overall success as a psychological thriller may actually be overshadowed by its exceptional depth. This is a movie that's filled to the brim with astute observations on perception, idol worship and the nature of reality.
This, I feel, is what elevates "Perfect Blue" above most anime movies (and most live action movies, too, for that matter). While it's unlikely to appeal to everyone, if you're looking for a smart and effective psychological thriller then "Perfect Blue" is well worth your time, regardless of any preconceived notions that you may have about anime. Sadly, the director (Satoshi Kon) succumbed to cancer at the young age of 46 but not before producing four distinctive anime films, of which this may be the finest.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
A well done update of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"
"Heaven Can Wait" is a remake of the 1941 fantasy/comedy classic "Here Comes Mr. Jordan", starring Robert Montgomery as pugilist Joe Pendleton along with Claude Rains as the titular Mr. Jordan. This time around, Warren Beatty takes on the Joe Pendleton role, now a Los Angeles Rams quarterback instead of a boxer.
The story is put in motion when Pendleton is yanked out of his body by an overzealous angel before he's meant to die. By the time the error is discovered it's too late for Pendleton to be placed back into his own body so he must accept an alternate host among individuals who are about to die. When he does finally settle on a body he quickly resumes his goal of attempting to become the starting quarterback for the Rams but he must also contend with his predecessor's murderous wife and shady business dealings.
Being pretty faithfully based on "Here Comes Mr. Jordan", it's no surprise that "Heaven Can Wait" has a somewhat old-fashioned feel. However, that's a good thing. The clever plot of the original was kept mostly intact while bringing the characters and the comedy up to date. Overall, I find the remake to be funnier and just different enough from the original to keep it fresh. I still give the original a slight edge in narrative construction, though.
The cast of the original made for a high standard to match but I think that the remake met and possibly even exceeded it. Beatty made an engaging lead of a totally different sort than Robert Montgomery and being teamed with Julie Christie again was the icing on the cake. The supporting cast was also superb with multiple standouts including James Mason, Jack Warden, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon & Buck Henry.
Lavished with nine Oscar nominations, "Heaven Can Wait" is a movie that shows attention to detail in all areas. In the end, the film's only Oscar win was for art direction/set decoration, though the tight writing and jaunty musical score could have just as easily been honoured as well (not to mention one or more of the actors).
I'm a bit surprised at the movie's somewhat middling rating on this site but I suspect that's probably because it represents a throwback to an earlier era of film-making. If that sounds appealing to you, by all means check this movie out.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
A complex swan song from Kubrick
"Eyes Wide Shut" marked the end of legendary director Stanley Kubrick's career, being completed mere days before his death. His first film in more than a decade, it was eagerly anticipated but was ultimately met with mixed reviews. This was probably partially due to the advertising campaign that tried to sell the movie as an erotic thriller. What moviegoers actually got was something much more unique and surreal.
The story focuses on a married couple, Dr. William & Alice Harford (played by Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman). When Alice confesses that she fantasized about cheating on her husband with a young naval officer it disturbs him that his marriage may not be as secure as he thought. Over the course of the night he embarks on an odyssey of sexual discovery wherein he grapples with his newfound jealousy & insecurity.
This synopsis is purposely fairly vague since I feel that the plot moves into such unexpected territory that it would be a shame to go into the movie knowing too much. The trailer gives away very little but it probably led people to expect a completely different kind of movie. While there is a heavy sexual element to the movie, I certainly wouldn't call it erotic. To me it seems much more clinical (perhaps mirroring the doctor's viewpoint), studied & surreal.
The movie shows Kubrick's attention to detail in every frame. There's a consistent dream-like vibe that's unlikely to appeal to everyone. I find this to be clearly evident in the visuals and the music but also in the acting. Despite moving at a very deliberate pace, the story is gripping, at least once the initial groundwork is laid. However, the script's main strength is the amount of depth that it has, leading to many possible interpretations. To be honest, I was somewhat bewildered the first time I saw the movie but the second time around I discovered a whole new layer of meaning.
The acting is a bit harder to judge. The film's dream-like feel called for a more mannered approach than is typical of today's films. To some, this might be seen as artificial. Personally, I think that some of the acting comes across as a bit laboured but, overall, I'm happy with all of the performances. Tom Cruise, in particular, showed that he was up to the task of playing a character whose seemingly perfect exterior masked an interior plagued with doubts.
"Eyes Wide Shut" is truly the type of movie that practically begs for multiple viewings. From a visual standpoint, it's absolutely gorgeous. When it comes to the story, it's both compelling and thought-provoking. In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that the movie got almost no recognition at the major awards shows (Oscars, Golden Globes & BAFTAs). While it may not quite reach the dizzying heights of all-time classics like "2001: A Space Odyssey" & "A Clockwork Orange", it isn't that far off.
Wayne's World 2 (1993)
Not as good as the first one but still worth watching
Just one year after the original "Wayne's World" movie became a surprise hit, Mike Myers & Dana Carvey returned as Wayne & Garth for another cinematic adventure. Although generally regarded as being inferior to the first movie, "Wayne's World 2" nevertheless features several memorable scenes.
However, I think that the main problem with the movie is that these scenes are sprinkled throughout a story that just plain isn't that interesting. After having a dream where he speaks to Jim Morrison about doing something with his life, Wayne goes about organizing a music festival. As you might expect, he quickly finds himself in over his head.
This is a decent enough premise but the actual "Wayne's World" TV show gets almost totally ignored, so this needn't have been a "Wayne's World" movie to begin with. Although the story was supposed to illustrate character growth, the fact is that Wayne & Garth don't actually do a whole lot to make the festival a success. Apart from this, the Wayne & Cassandra romantic subplot mostly seems like a rehash of what we saw already in the first movie.
I'm probably being a bit harsh on the screenplay, though. As I said before, there are several memorable scenes which are brought to life by a pretty good cast. Particularly notable is Ralph Brown as British roadie Del Preston. Other memorable moments are provided by the likes of James Hong, Kim Basinger, Harry Shearer & Drew Barrymore. Christopher Walken is also here in a prominent supporting role but, unfortunately, I find his character to be pretty colourless.
Behind the camera, Penelope Spheeris didn't return as director due to clashing with Myers the first time around but "Kids in the Hall" alumni Stephen Surjik did a respectable job in her place. Of course, being "Wayne's World", music plays an important role in the movie. Overall, the soundtrack is probably better this time, even though there's nothing as iconic as the uses of "Bohemian Rhapsody" & "Dream Weaver" from the first movie.
Ultimately, "Wayne's World 2" mostly avoids feeling like a retread but it seems to me that it works better in individual scenes than on the whole. It still makes for an enjoyable hour and a half but it's missing the indefinable spark that made the original stand out.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Among the most iconic Hollywood musicals
"Singin' in the Rain" is one of the most highly praised American films of all time, regularly appearing on critics' top ten lists. It tells the story of a group of film-makers and stars circa 1927 making the awkward transition from silent to 'talkie' pictures.
The film is basically a celebration of the well received MGM musicals that had been appearing for about 25 years at that point. Almost all of the songs featured in the film originated from earlier films. Actually, the story was built around the songs, which is sometimes evident in the tenuous associations given by the script.
Nevertheless, the story is quite interesting as it revisits the period of transition between silent and talking pictures, showing some of the difficulties encountered along the way. The romantic subplot is a bit more pedestrian but, on the whole, the story is both joyous and satisfying.
Whatever the material, the cast certainly left little room for improvement. You couldn't ask for a better leading man than Gene Kelly for what is arguably the definitive MGM musical. He's well suited to the role of movie star Don Lockwood and his singing & dancing are as good as ever. Nineteen year old Debbie Reynolds was as cute as a button while holding her own with both Kelly and Donald O'Connor, who was no slouch himself. Meanwhile, Jean Hagen snagged an Oscar nomination for what is easily the film's best comedic performance. Also notable were Millard Mitchell as the studio head and Cyd Charisse as a featured dancer.
Another of the film's high points is the technical aspect. The co-direction by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen is top notch and provides us with several memorable moments. The "Broadway Melody Ballet" portion of the film is particularly ambitious and breath-taking, while Gene Kelly's rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" is legendary. And let's not forget the sumptuous Technicolor photography.
All things considered, "Singin' in the Rain" has to be regarded as one of the best movies in the musical genre. While there are a few Hollywood musicals that I would rank above it, there's no denying that the movie is a joy to behold and that it still holds up surprisingly well today.
You are what you eat
"Ravenous" is a horror movie set in California in the 1840's. After exhibiting cowardice in battle, an army lieutenant (Guy Pearce) is exiled to a remote outpost in the dead of winter. Soon after arriving, a mysterious stranger appears with a grisly tale of how he & his travelling companions were forced to resort to cannibalism after getting lost on the way to their destination. A rescue party is hastily assembled but it soon becomes apparent that the stranger is harbouring a dark secret.
The story is fairly unique, making use of wendigo mythology which has its origins in Native American folklore. The narrative's a bit disjointed, though, and I don't think that it wrings all of the tension that it could out of the situation. The touches of black humour may harm more than help since they subdue the horror to a certain degree without really lending much of a satiric bite.
The cast is pretty good, at least, especially for a horror movie. Guy Pearce may be a bit bland in the lead role but Robert Carlyle made up for that with a boldly villainous performance. The supporting cast includes some notable character actors like Jeffrey Jones, Neal McDonough & Jeremy Davies. David Arquette, despite being one of the top-billed stars (no doubt due to his involvement in the "Scream" franchise), didn't really add much to the movie.
Director Antonia Bird had the unenviable task of taking over a few weeks into shooting after the original director was fired. The end result doesn't seem to reflect this turmoil, though I found the opening credits sequence to be jarringly out of place (which, to be fair, probably wasn't Bird's fault). I can't say that I was a fan of the score by Michael Nyman and (Blur's) Damon Albarn, either.
In the end, "Ravenous" does a decent job with its premise even though the film doesn't quite live up to its full potential. It's worth watching but is unlikely to ever gain more than a cult following.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A unique film and one of Ron Howard's best
Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind" is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of American mathematician John Nash. Beginning at Princeton University in the late 1940's, the movie focuses on his early contributions to economic theory and his subsequent, prolonged struggle with mental illness.
As is often the case with biographical films, the script is fairly loosely based on the actual events. Some may take exception to this but I feel that the changes serve a valid dramatic purpose. Additionally, the means of portraying Nash's mental state required some artistic license. Again, I feel that this is handled effectively, though who really knows if it's particularly reflective of Nash's actual experiences?
In any case, the story is an involving one that spans many years. The factual basis provided an intriguing foundation for screenwriter Akiva Goldsman to construct a script that puts the viewers in Nash's shoes. The paranoid atmosphere of 1950's America supplies an ideal backdrop for Nash's unravelling sanity while the aftermath is just as interesting. It should be noted that Goldsman was rewarded with an Oscar for his efforts.
Of course, much of the credit for bringing Nash to life must go to Russell Crowe. Fresh off his Oscar win for "Gladiator", Crowe found himself nominated for an Oscar for the third year in a row, this time for perhaps the best performance of his career. He wasn't on his own, though. The lovely & talented Jennifer Connelly took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Nash's devoted wife. The supporting cast wasn't bad either, featuring Ed Harris & Paul Bettany in memorable roles along with the likes of Judd Hirsch, Christopher Plummer & Adam Goldberg.
Ron Howard's direction is solid, as usual, though I'm not convinced that he deserved to win the Oscar that year over some very tough competition. Nevertheless, "A Beautiful Mind" is a well directed film, both visually and performance-wise. The Oscar-nominated score by James Horner is also notable, as is the Oscar-nominated makeup that convincingly aged Crowe & others over the course of decades.
All in all, "A Beautiful Mind" is an effective film that ranks as one of Ron Howard's best in a career studded with several crowd-pleasers. Arguments could certainly be made for other films as being more deserving of 2001's Best Picture Oscar but the movie was by no means undeserving. Just don't go into it expecting stringent adherence to the facts.
Batman Returns (1992)
A decent follow-up but no match for the first movie
"Batman Returns" brought Tim Burton back to the Batman franchise after 1989's incredibly successful first outing. The movie proved to be a financial success but opinion is divided on whether or not the movie lived up to its now iconic predecessor.
This time around, Batman (Michael Keaton) faces off against a pair of his longtime nemeses - the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Plot-wise, the Penguin teams up with a corrupt businessman (Christopher Walken) in order to essentially take control of Gotham City. Catwoman, meanwhile, has her own reasons for getting in on the action.
I find that "Batman Returns" has a more pronounced Tim Burton feel than "Batman", which isn't surprising considering that he was given more creative control. Whether that's a good or a bad thing for the movie is subject to debate. Personally, I find that this is where the franchise started gravitating towards the cartoonish aspects of the character's universe, which would only get worse with the poorly regarded third & fourth films.
The cast is pretty decent but it's tough to fill the hole left by Jack Nicholson. Nevertheless, Danny DeVito is effective as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer is alluring as the leather-clad Catwoman. Christoper Walken, meanwhile, supplies a typically Christopher Walken-esque performance as only he can. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of introducing all of these characters is that Batman himself is noticeably absent for most of the beginning of the movie.
Burton's direction is solid as always but the visuals just seem to lack something in comparison to the first film. Perhaps it's the Christmas setting or maybe it's just that the production design in general isn't as ominous. At least they were able to get Danny Elfman back to handle the music again.
Ultimately, I think that "Batman Returns" is a decent follow-up but no match for the first movie. Saying that it's better than "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin" doesn't count for much but I would say that it's a reasonably entertaining superhero movie, all things considered. It's just that, with the glut of superhero movies in recent years, it's no longer particularly remarkable.
Characteristically smart cinema from Charlie Kaufman & Spike Jonze
Building on the success of 1999's "Being John Malkovich", Charlie Kaufman & Spike Jonze re-teamed for 2002's "Adaptation", which turned out to be another distinctive offering. The semi-autobiographical story focuses on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), who is struggling to complete an adaptation of a book about orchid poaching.
Not exactly the most intriguing premise, I know, but the real Kaufman's Oscar-nominated screenplay is far from your average Hollywood concoction. The character's problems with adapting an essentially plot-less book merely supply the foundation for explorations on the creative process & human passion. Even though the movie skewers Hollywood artifice it cleverly makes use of formulaic tropes in a new and interesting way. Taking such mundane material and making it both thought-provoking & entertaining was no small feat.
The cast seems to have been well-suited to the material. Nicolas Cage did double duty as Charlie Kaufman and his identical brother Donald. Cage performances can definitely be erratic but this one (which was Oscar-nominated) has to be considered one of his best. Do I even need to comment on twenty time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep's performance? It's good, of course (not to mention the source of one of her Oscar nominations). However, it was Chris Cooper who stole the show with his note-perfect portrayal of rustic orchid thief John Laroche. His Oscar was well deserved.
The direction by Spike Jonze may not have been Oscar-nominated but it certainly could have been, if for no other reason than the performances that he coaxed from his three main actors. Of course, as seen with "Being John Malkovich" and subsequent films, Jonze also knows a thing or two about crafting striking visuals. This film is no exception. From a music standpoint, there isn't much that sticks in my memory apart from an effective use of the Turtles' classic "Happy Together".
All in all, "Adaptation" offers a refreshing combination of art and entertainment. The talent both behind and in front of the camera all put their best foot forward in bringing this unique story to the screen. Fans of Kaufman & Jonze are certain to enjoy this even though others may be put off by some of the film's idiosyncrasies.
Atmospheric Southern Gothic from first-time director Bill Paxton
"Frailty" is a movie that's somewhat difficult to pin down. It contains many elements of horror but it shows more intelligence & restraint than most films of that type. It also functions as an enthralling crime drama with a compelling central mystery. Lastly, the story is enveloped in a palpable atmosphere of Southern Gothic.
Set in Bill Paxton's home state of Texas, "Frailty" begins with a man claiming to know the identity of the so-called "God's Hand" serial killer. Naturally, his claim is met with skepticism by the FBI agent in charge of the case. So, he begins to unravel the story of his family's supposed mission from God, taking us back twenty years into the past...
The bulk of the movie occurs in flashback with Matthew McConaughey relating his family's experiences to Powers Boothe, who plays the FBI agent. Both Texans, McConaughey & Boothe were ideally suited to these roles. Due to the narrative approach, McConaughey's performance brings to mind "True Detective", which certainly isn't a bad thing. In the flashback sequences, Bill Paxton plays the father who believes he has received a mission from God. He acquitted himself well in a challenging role that demanded that he come across as both morally upright & mentally unhinged. The two young actors who portrayed his sons - Matt O'Leary & Jeremy Sumpter - both did well alongside Paxton, contributing mainly naturalistic performances.
Paxton's first-time direction is nicely handled, even though I think that he might have gotten carried away a couple of times. Most importantly, the suspense is expertly controlled, which makes the story that much more compelling. The chilling music by Brian Tyler also played a crucial role in establishing the film's overall atmosphere.
"Frailty" is a sleeper of a movie that deserves a wider audience. Here, Bill Paxton showed himself capable as both director and star. Add in Matthew McConaughey & Powers Boothe plus a smart, gripping script and you've got a sure-fire winner for fans of understated horror & Southern Gothic-tinged crime dramas.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Oil is thicker than blood
Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" tells the story of an unscrupulous oil prospector (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the early days of the twentieth century. Already a modest success, he purchases the land that he hopes will lead to even greater fortune. This places him in a long-running battle of wills with a local preacher (Paul Dano).
Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of ruthless oil man Daniel Plainview. While perhaps a bit too mannered for my preference, I have to admit that he immersed himself completely in the role. I was actually more drawn to Paul Dano as the sometimes explosive religious zealot, Eli Sunday. In any case, the palpable friction between these two actors provides us with the best illustration of Plainview's relentless character.
The script, which was loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel, is thought-provoking and fairly interesting even though it is perhaps a bit sparse. There's not much of a character arc for Plainview; rather the film showcases a dogged determination on his part and an unwillingness to change. The ending may be a little out-of-the-blue for some viewers but I thought that it was fitting.
As far as I'm concerned, the best part about the film is the artistry with which it is presented. Anderson's direction is stellar throughout, making it easy to forgive that his script sometimes lacks momentum. Jonny Greenwood's score has some memorable motifs, such as the piercing, dissonant violins that open the picture. However, there were a few times when I found the music at odds with the visuals, which wouldn't have been as noticeable if the score wasn't so prominent.
All in all, the film is well worth watching even though I prefer the audacious scope of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia". Less reminiscent of Robert Altman's sprawling ensemble pieces like "Nashville" & "Short Cuts", "There Will Be Blood" instead has similarities to the much more intimate "McCabe & Mrs. Miller". Regardless, the film probably represents Anderson's most potent effort from an artistic standpoint (at least to date).
Le cinquième élément (1997)
An enjoyable sci-fi romp
Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" is a sci-fi movie that puts more emphasis on adventure than on scientific speculation. However, that doesn't mean that the movie isn't brimming with imaginative content. The world of "The Fifth Element" is colourful and well realized, while the plot is full of action.
The somewhat convoluted storyline revolves around the search for the titular 'Fifth Element', which is mankind's only hope against impending doom. A colourful cast of characters are on the trail of this mystical item for various reasons. I'm keeping this synopsis vague mainly because the premise is one that's difficult to describe in just a few words.
The movie attracted an interesting cast, to say the least. Bruce Willis, in prime 'working man's action hero' mode, was the top-billed star and he didn't disappoint. However, Milla Jovovich had probably the film's most memorable performance as perfect human being Leeloo. That's not to take anything away from the always intriguing Gary Oldman, whose outlandish portrayal of an arms dealer was something to behold. Also memorably outlandish was Chris Tucker as entertainment personality Ruby Rhod. I haven't even touched on Sir Ian Holm or notable appearances by the likes of Luke Perry, Mathieu Kassovitz & trip-hop pioneer Tricky. As I said, definitely an interesting cast.
Visually, the movie is a treat. Luc Besson went for a style inspired by French comics artists Jean "Moebius" Giraud & Jean-Claude Mézières, even going so far as to hire them to contribute to the production design. The result was a vibrant, fully realized world of the future that isn't just a retread of tired genre tropes. Meanwhile, Besson's direction is nicely handled and keeps the action flowing smoothly.
All in all, "The Fifth Element" is a memorable science fiction movie that managed to separate itself from the pack by presenting a unique vision. A varied and well-assembled cast helped to bring the movie to life, as did a fast-moving storyline that's full of twists and turns.
Blood Simple. (1984)
A memorable debut for the Coen brothers
"Blood Simple" marked the first directorial effort of the Coen brothers. As is normally the case, the brothers also co-authored the script. Even at this early stage in their careers, you can see many of the hallmarks that later made modern classics out of films like "Fargo" & "No Country For Old Men".
The story harks back to the film noir and hard-boiled detective stories of the 1940's. A love triangle is poised to turn deadly when a jealous husband hires a private investigator to 'dispose' of his rival. Naturally, when blood is involved, things don't turn out to be quite so simple.
The plot follows a characteristically serpentine path, prefiguring similarly convoluted plots in movies like "Miller's Crossing" & "The Big Lebowski". While the dialogue may not have quite the polish of these later efforts, there is nevertheless a distinctive flair to the script.
Bringing this script to life is a cast that's decent but unexceptional. Dan Hedaya & M. Emmet Walsh are always worth watching but John Getz is a bit of a weak link. Frances McDormand made her film debut here as the requisite femme fatale, albeit an unconventional one. It's a pretty good performance but not one that ranks alongside her best.
From a visual standpoint, the movie has several interesting touches sprinkled throughout. However, as with the script, the direction pales just a little in comparison to the Coens' subsequent work. In the music department, apart from a couple of intriguing soundtrack selections the music is mostly unremarkable.
While not a first tier Coen brothers effort, "Blood Simple" contains enough of their signature ingredients to make it worthwhile for fans of theirs or just lovers of crime dramas in general. As a debut, it's impressive, even if it is a little rough around the edges.
Air Force One (1997)
A pretty decent Harrison Ford action vehicle
For a movie that recycles most of its ingredients from past action movies (especially "Die Hard"), "Air Force One" still manages to stand out relatively well in its own right. This is partially due to the high concept premise that's chock full of potential.
In the movie, a group of terrorists hijack Air Force One, which is the official call sign of the aircraft carrying the President of the United States of America. Luckily, the President just happens to be a tough-as-nails Medal of Honor recipient (rather than, say, a blowhard with a combover). Obviously, these terrorists are about to experience some major turbulence.
Starring as the President is Harrison Ford. There aren't too many actors that could pull off this role but Ford is one of them. His pedigree as an action hero is unquestionable but he's also convincing as a stalwart leader and a loving husband & father. His worthy adversary is played by the always captivating Gary Oldman, who contributes a deliciously villainous performance. The supporting cast is headed by the formidable Glenn Close as the Vice President and is otherwise studded with the likes of Dean Stockwell, William H. Macy & Philip Baker Hall.
As I alluded to above, the story borrows heavily from other (better) action movies, particularly "Die Hard". In fact, there are so many parallels that you could say that this movie is basically "Die Hard" on a plane, with the President in place of John McClane. That being said, the "Die Hard" template translates very well to the setting of "Air Force One". Unfortunately, in the later stages the action gets somewhat ludicrous, possibly in an attempt to distinguish the movie from other similar excursions.
The sometimes over-the-top action isn't the only problem with the narrative, though. The catalyst for the story is a betrayal by one of the American Secret Service agents. However, director Wolfgang Peterson felt that it was unnecessary to provide a glimpse into this character's motivation, so he ended up leaving an explanatory scene on the cutting room floor. This is particularly baffling since the character figures into the action fairly significantly but he basically remains a mystery.
Generally, though, from a directorial standpoint, Wolfgang Peterson did a fine job. Before eventually going overboard, the movie is quite suspenseful. Unfortunately, another drawback of the excesses in the action department is that the special effects aren't quite convincing. At least the Jerry Goldsmith score provides a rousing backdrop even when the story goes off the rails.
Ultimately, "Air Force One" is a decent action movie but one that loses its way in the late stages. Apart from the aforementioned misguided action sequences, the final showdown with the terrorists also leaves something to be desired. Even so, the movie's still worth watching since Ford & Oldman going head to head makes for compelling viewing for a large chunk of the movie's runtime.
Groundhog Day (1993)
A comedy classic and one of Bill Murray's finest
The protagonist of "Groundhog Day" is Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, played to smug perfection by Bill Murray. Covering Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, he and his crew get stuck in town due to a snowstorm. Upon waking the next morning, he's struck with a case of déjà vu and he soon realizes that he's reliving the same day over and over again. Can there be any means of escape? One way or another, he's determined to find one.
Bill Murray was the ideal choice for this role. Initially insufferable, we find enjoyment in his character's predicament because it repeatedly places him in circumstances that he can't stand. As the movie progresses, he does many of the things that we would probably do in the same situation, whether for selfish or selfless reasons. Eventually, he becomes a character that we start to root for.
The original screenplay won a BAFTA award but it wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. The time-loop concept was pretty novel for the time and it was explored in many ways but I think the thing that really makes the story stand out is the journey of the main character. You'd think that repeating the same day over and over again would make the movie dull but it's Phil's alterations in his attitudes and his actions that keep things fresh.
Bill Murray didn't do it all on his own, of course. Andie McDowell was an excellent match for Murray with her wholesome quality and sunny demeanor. Meanwhile, talented supporting players like Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky & Brian Doyle-Murray made sure that the film was comedically sharp.
In the director's chair, Harold Ramis brought his comedic touch honed by involvement in classics like "Animal House", "Caddyshack" & "Ghostbusters". Seldom ostentatious, the visuals are mainly focused on enhancing comedic effect. The music, meanwhile, is competent but fairly unremarkable, save for the memorable use (and continued re-use) of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe".
All in all, "Groundhog Day" is a comedy that fires on all cylinders. An intriguing premise, an interesting story arc & enjoyable characters brought to life by talented individuals combine to make it a comedy that will certainly stand the test of time.
An enthralling character-driven sports movie
Ron Howard's "Rush" tells the true story of the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) & Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Focusing mainly on the extraordinary 1976 season, the film shows both their fierce competitiveness on the track and their struggles off of it. In a sport that could turn deadly at any minute, the stakes are high throughout the entire movie.
The lead actors are two of the film's biggest assets. Chris Hemsworth is ostensibly the star of the film, effortlessly playing the flamboyant but reckless Englishman James Hunt; however, Daniel Brühl's portrayal of the cool & calculating Austrian Niki Lauda practically stole the show, resulting in Golden Globe & BAFTA nominations. Ultimately, though, much of the film's success depends on the opposing styles of these two actors and their interplay with one another, so both of them are deserving of praise. The supporting cast is mostly made up of lesser known (but by no means untalented) actors, with the notable exception of Olivia Wilde as Hunt's love interest.
Ron Howard's direction is as sure-handed as ever. The main characters come to vivid life in the dramatic scenes and, as a result, we're riveted whenever an adrenaline-pumping race scene rolls around. Speaking of the race scenes, Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle came up with some novel angles to keep the action fresh. On the audio front, the sound design is impressive while the Hans Zimmer score provides another crucial (though largely unheralded) element.
In the end, though, despite quality acting and technical prowess, the strength of the movie arguably resides mostly in its gripping storyline. If you're aren't already familiar with the incredible true story of the 1976 F1 season, I'd recommend knowing as little as possible going into this movie. It's one of those stories that was just crying out to be filmed and, thankfully, Ron Howard and company did justice to it.
Another well-written comedy-drama from Alexander Payne
"Sideways" marked Alexander Payne's first Oscar win, following a previous writing nomination for 1999's "Election". Nominated for both writing & directing, he ended up taking home a statuette for his adapted screenplay (shared with Jim Taylor, the co-writer of "Election").
On the surface, the movie might not sound like much: A struggling writer takes his long-time friend on a road trip through California's wine country as a send-off prior to his impending nuptials. But what brings the movie to life are the vivid characters, their interactions with one another and their motivations.
The always reliable Paul Giamatti plays sad-sack Miles, a divorced English teacher & wine aficionado whose life is mired in depression. His best friend Jack is played by Thomas Haden Church, best known for his role as Lowell in the long-running sitcom "Wings". Jack's positive outlook and energy are a perfect contrast to Miles's generally negative attitude towards everything. Thomas Haden Church snagged an Oscar nomination for his performance but Paul Giamatti was unaccountably (and unexpectedly) snubbed. Virginia Madsen also landed an Oscar nomination for her performance as Miles's love interest, while Sandra Oh rounded out a stalwart main cast.
The Oscar-winning script gave these talented actors & actresses plenty to work with and they were expertly guided by director Alexander Payne. Oscar-nominated for both writing & directing, Payne exhibited his knack for crafting idiosyncratic comedies that are strengthened by a meaningful dramatic core. Both visually attractive and musically interesting, the movie is slickly produced without seeming artificial.
In the end, though, "Sideways" may not be for everyone. The two main characters are admittedly not the greatest guys. They both have their faults and it's difficult to say how a given viewer will respond to them. Personally, I found Thomas Haden Church's character to be pretty unlikeable the first time I watched the movie. Then again, the fact that he made an impression on me shows that this wasn't to the detriment of the film. In any case, there's a lot to like about "Sideways", even if you aren't simpatico with the two main characters.
Panic Room (2002)
Another solid thriller from David Fincher
"Panic Room" is one of David Fincher's lesser known pictures, perhaps because it lacks the lurid punch of films like "Seven" & "Gone Girl". In any case, Fincher knows his way around the thriller genre and "Panic Room" is characteristically meticulous and suspenseful.
The story revolves around a recently divorced mother (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter (Kristen Stewart). On the first night in their new home they're preyed upon by a group of thieves. They're able to successfully retreat to the safety of the house's 'panic room' but there's one problem: the thieves want in and they're not about to give up easily.
On the surface, this premise appears pretty limited but screenwriter David Koepp keeps us interested by introducing new angles that increase the possibilities of the situation. Essentially a 'cat and mouse' game, the script does a good job of maintaining tension and using characterization to give resonance to the story.
The cast is small but well assembled. Jodie Foster brought a mix of vulnerability & tenacity to the lead role while 12-year old Kristen Stewart held her own in her first major film role. The trio of thieves are played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam - an interesting combination, to say the least.
Of course, being a David Fincher film, the visuals are consistently attractive and the direction is rock solid. The movie's simplicity harks back to high concept thrillers of years gone by. One might even call the direction Hitchcockian.
Ultimately, "Panic Room" is a well executed thriller but I feel that it's a bit conventional in comparison to Fincher's other thrillers that are more representative of his trademark style. Nevertheless, it's hard to argue against a thriller that's as skillfully constructed as this one is.
Mystic River (2003)
One of Eastwood's best
Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, also known for penning the novels upon which "Gone, Baby, Gone" & "Shutter Island" were based. Adapting the novel for the screen was Brian Helgeland, who previously won an Oscar for co-writing "L.A. Confidential". So, from a writing perspective, the movie certainly had all of the ingredients for a gripping crime drama.
The multi-layered story is set in Boston and concerns a group of childhood friends whose lives intersect once again when one of their daughters is murdered. The screenplay expertly balances mystery and drama in a manner that evokes Greek tragedy moreso than a typical potboiler. It was nominated for (and probably should have won) the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
When it comes to the cast, it's definitely one that justifies the adjective 'all-star'. Sean Penn & Tim Robbins gave remarkable, Oscar-winning performances and the rest of the main cast was scarcely less impressive. Kevin Bacon & Laurence Fishburne played a pair of cops and contributed characteristically solid performances. Laura Linney & Marcia Gay Harden gave two very different portrayals of spouses, with Harden's particularly impressive performance garnering an Oscar nomination. The remainder of the cast was uniformly reliable as well.
Eastwood's direction is generally unobtrusive and gives the actors plenty of room to shine. This results in a film that is attractive but not distractingly so. Eastwood also provided the film's score, which features a memorable motif that recurs throughout.
Altogether, "Mystic River" represents one of Clint Eastwood's best films as a director. The stellar cast, workmanlike production and compelling story combine to produce what is arguably the best movie of 2003.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
A fascinating period piece with a standout performance from Woody Harrelson
Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt" tells the true story of how Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt unwittingly became a crusader for freedom of speech. Beginning in the early 1970's, the movie follows Flynt as he builds a porn empire with his racy alternative to Playboy. Of course, pushing the boundaries of good taste has a tendency to ruffle some people's feathers, so he quickly (and frequently) finds himself involved in various legal wranglings. Defending his business interests, he stands his ground on the premise of freedom of speech.
Thankfully, the Golden Globe-winning screenplay doesn't paint Flynt as a selfless crusader for human rights. He straddles the grey area between hero & anti-hero and the script doesn't go out of its way to sway you one way or the other. The premise is fascinating on its own but further colour is added by way of delving into other areas of Flynt's life.
Portraying Flynt is Woody Harrelson in his first Oscar-nominated performance. He carries the movie, creating a portrayal that makes Flynt likable as a character, regardless of what you think of his profession. Courntney Love also got a fair amount of attention as Flynt's wife but I'm not completely sold on her presence here. More memorable, in my mind, is Edward Norton in an early role as Flynt's long-suffering lawyer. The supporting cast is generally reliable as well, including Harrelson's brother Brett as Larry's younger brother Jimmy.
Milos Forman's direction is top notch, as expected. He received an Oscar nomination and took home a Golden Globe for his efforts. The movie has an attractive look that is vividly brought to life with attention to detail in the period-specific costumes & sets. Some period-specific soundtrack selections further enhanced the movie's feel.
All in all, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is a fascinating portrait of a man of dubious morals who ended up fighting for the free speech of all Americans. With fine direction and acting thrown into the mix, the movie is a unique, entertaining tale of a true rebel, though one that is unlikely to appeal to all tastes due to the risqué subject matter.
Not on par with "Swingers" but still worthwhile
"Made" was the movie that reunited Jon Favreau & Vince Vaughn five years after their surprise breakthrough hit "Swingers". This time, Favreau himself handled the directing duties for the first time in his career, while also writing the screenplay.
The setup this time around has certain similarities to "Swingers". This time, instead of being a struggling actor, the lead character is a struggling boxer. The dynamic between the two main characters is also quite similar.
The story itself concerns a couple of unsuccessful pals getting involved in low-level organized crime by way of a money-laundering deal. Favreau's character tries to maintain some semblance of quiet professionalism while Vaughn's loudmouth character continually does and says the wrong thing practically every step of the way.
As before, Favreau & Vaughn work very well together. Favreau is more or less the straight man while Vaughn is the enthusiastic but often clueless joker. In support, there are some memorable performances from Famke Janssen, Faizon Love, Peter Falk and (surprisingly) Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs. Also, watch for Bud Cort & Sam Rockwell in small, uncredited roles.
Favreau's direction is ably handled, though it doesn't have the same panache that Doug Liman brought to "Swingers". My bigger concern is with the screenplay. There are plenty of laughs but in the final act it seems that Favreau can't decide if he wants to veer towards silliness or seriousness.
Ultimately, "Made" contains an ample supply of funny moments but I don't think that the story completely holds together. That being said, since the movie does succeed in recapturing at least some of the magic of "Swingers" I'd say that it's worthwhile in the end.
"You're so money and you don't even know it"
"Swingers" was a movie that came out of nowhere in 1996 and made instant stars of its director (Doug Liman) and lead actors (Jon Favreau & Vince Vaughn). Filmed on a minuscule $200,000 budget, the story concerns a struggling Hollywood actor (Favreau) re-entering the dating scene following the collapse of a six-year relationship.
The semi-autobiographical script was written by Favreau himself. It has plenty of humour and a certain aura of 'cool' while still remaining down-to-earth and relatable.
Since Favreau wrote the screenplay with some of his friends in mind it's no surprise that the cast was composed mostly of relative unknowns. Supporting actress Heather Graham was probably the most established cast member at the time. Nevertheless, the one-two punch of Jon Favreau & Vince Vaughn in the lead roles gave the film plenty of energy and an easy-going swagger. In support, the aforementioned Heather Graham stood out, as did then unknown Ron Livingston.
The direction by Doug Liman garnered a lot of attention at the time (and rightly so). Despite the budget restrictions, he delivered a lively, attractive presentation that established him as an up-and-coming talent. Affectionate homages to "Reservoir Dogs" & "GoodFellas" are among the film's most memorable scenes.
The movie also excelled musically. The performances by swing revival band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are a particular highlight but the movie also made good use of classic cuts by Average White Band ("Pick Up the Pieces"), Heart ("Magic Man"), Dean Martin ("You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You") & Roger Miller ("King of the Road"), among others.
Altogether, "Swingers" is a movie that far exceeded its limited resources. Funny & cool, yet still dramatically effective, it delivers more entertainment than most movies with hundred million dollar budgets.
An unfairly maligned Spielberg effort
Steven Spielberg's "Hook" may not have the cachet of some of his other films like "Jaws", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Schindler's List", "Saving Private Ryan"... well, you get the idea. In a career studded with bona fide cinematic classics, "Hook" is easy to overlook. Even Spielberg himself isn't very fond of it. However, it's my opinion (and it's an opinion that seems to be shared by many) that "Hook" is a lot better than people give it credit for.
Certainly, the mere involvement of Steven Spielberg in a directing capacity is a big step in the right direction. The movie unabashedly bears his trademarks; not just a masterful grasp of visual storytelling but also his ability to coax memorable performances from youngsters and his exploration of father-son relationships. Bolstering the visual presentation, the production design, costumes & cinematography all show meticulous attention to detail. On top of that, there's a score by John Williams. What more could you ask for from a technical standpoint?
Of course, all of the production values in the world wouldn't make any difference if the story was no good. Here, the movie hooks us with a unique premise whereby Peter Pan has grown up and must rediscover his identity in order to rescue his children from the clutches of the villainous Captain Hook. Some viewers seem to find the story schmaltzy but I feel that it has some real dramatic heft rather than being built on routine Hollywood artifice. There's also no shortage of action & adventure, though that's (understandably) tailored to a younger audience. That's not to say that it isn't entertaining to the nostalgic or the young at heart, though.
As for the cast, Robin Williams & Dustin Hoffman both shone in their respective starring roles as Peter Pan & Captain Hook. Williams is his usual affable self while Hoffman is nearly unrecognizable. Both appeared to enjoy themselves immensely in bringing this fantasy adventure to life. In support, the always reliable Maggie Smith is a welcome presence while Bob Hoskins & Julia Roberts also made an impression. The cast's many children, guided by Spielberg's directorial expertise, held their own next to their elders.
It's most likely that the keenest fans of this movie are those who first saw it as children, like myself. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find out how well the movie holds up after 25 years. Granted, it's not even in my top 10 Spielberg movies but that's more of a testament to the quality of his work over the years. In the end, "Hook" is a worthwhile fantasy adventure that would probably be lauded as a classic kids' movie if it had been directed by anyone other than Spielberg.