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Provisional Top 100:
1. Lawrence of Arabia
2. Once Upon a Time in the West
3. The Godfather, Part II
4. The Godfather
5. The Battle of Algiers
6. The Wild Bunch
7. The Ruling Class
8. His Girl Friday
10. The Best Years of Our Lives
11. A Matter of Life and Death
12. The Nun's Story
13. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
14. Brief Encounter
15. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
16. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
17. A Passage to India
18. 12 Angry Men
19. Dr. Strangelove
20. In Cold Blood
22. The Crowd
23. Sunset Blvd.
27. The Man from Laramie
29. Mildred Pierce
30. A Man for All Seasons
31. The Baader-Meinhoff Complex
32. On the Waterfront
34. The Passion of Joan of Arc
35. The Guns of Navarone
36. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
37. Citizen Kane
38. The Train
40. The Lavender Hill Mob
41. The Day of the Jackal
42. The Maltese Falcon
43. Once Upon a Time in America
44. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
45. All About Eve
47. Wagon Master
48. Devil's Doorway
49. Black Book
50. Mountains of the Moon
51. Shadow of a Doubt
52. The Bridge on the River Kwai
53. A Hard Day's Night
54. All the President's Men
55. 7 Men from Now
56. Taxi Driver
58. How to Steal a Million
59. Three Kings
60. Roman Holiday
62. Black Girl
63. Silver Linings Playbook
64. Full Metal Jacket
66. Billy Liar
67. Le Samourai
68. Sunday Bloody Sunday
69. The English Patient
70. The Gunfighter
71. Touch of Evil
73. Ride the High Country
75. The Wind and the Lion
76. The Insider
77. Peeping Tom
78. My Favorite Year
80. Young Mr. Lincoln
84. Pulp Fiction
86. Finding Nemo
87. Ulzana's Raid
89. Ryan's Daughter
90. Slumdog Millionaire
91. Strangers on a Train
92. Young Frankenstein
93. The Cat People
95. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
96. In the Name of the Father
97. The Sand Pebbles
98. Ball of Fire
99. Doctor Zhivago
100. Picnic at Hanging Rock
The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)
The worst movie of all time
Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) spends four years in prison for his killing of a sheriff's deputy. During that time, the Freedom School, a hippie commune led by Billy's lover Jean (Delores Taylor) begins to prosper, releasing newspapers and TV that stick it to the man, caring for underprivileged and abused children, and no doubt doing lots of drugs (oh, I'm sorry - drug use is against the rules there). Billy helps the Indians and the Freedom School stick up to the crooked landowner Posner (Riley Hill), who ultimately calls out the police and National Guard, with tragic (I guess) results.
"The Trial of Billy Jack" is an atrocious film that has to be seen to be believed. On the other hand, that may be too high of a price. While it maintains some of the camp value of its predecessors, any enjoyment, unintentional or otherwise, is done in by the fact that the movie is THREE FRICKING HOURS LONG!!! The movie's pretentious, overwrought and hilariously un-ironic political and social content isn't the problem here; it's the length, and boy does it drag.
The first Billy Jack had a certain purity of form. Clocking in at about two hours, it was a reasonably entertaining film which managed to be watchable, with the camp cheesiness and overwrought hippie world-view only enhancing the experience. The movie could never reconcile its pleas for pacifism with the appeal of Billy Jack's martial arts heroics, but it hardly mattered. The overlong guerrilla theater routines by Howard Hesseman and the interminable music numbers were the biggest flaws, but Laughlin managed to keep himself in check.
No such luck here, as Trial of Billy Jack drips with a potent strain of narcissism. Laughlin's film is filled to the brim of self-indulgence, padding the film's running time with self-indulgence and smug posturing. At least a third of the movie is lengthy, droning performances of atrocious excuses for "music", by people with no talent (most egregiously, Laughlin's daughter Teresa). Billy Jack is continually celebrated throughout as a paragon of virtue, albeit a somewhat flawed one, sung about and worshiped by the freedom school kids - yeah, nice humility, Tom. And of course, Laughlin's smug self-assurance that we'll agree with our heroes and their noxious political viewpoint is rather off-putting as well, but he gets around that problem - sort of.
The politics are by their nature laughable, accepting and endorsing every bit of radical, leftist conspiracy jargon as concrete fact. But the way Laughlin paints the issues is what makes it truly offensive. He juxtaposes the film's climactic massacre with real life school shootings like Kent State, portraying them as premeditated acts of mass murder by the National Guard. The villains are bigoted, greedy, harrumphing straw-men, not even convincing as caricatures. Laughlin and Co. seem convinced that they're so important that they're being investigated by the FBI, CIA, and the US government at large for their "scorching exposes" (Laughlin would, in real-life, use this excuse for the failure of his later Billy Jack Goes to Washington). The journalist interviewing Jean repeats leftist conspiracy propaganda as known fact. The final massacre is so over-the-top, it's simultaneously appalling and laughable; the idea that someone would actually hold this viewpoint, however, is what's truly appalling here (although, not as laughable as believing that thousands of rounds fired by trained Guardsmen could only result in three deaths in a huge crowd).
This is offensive, not because of the politics, but because of the dishonesty; it's easy to paint everyone opposed to you as a brutal, vicious Fascist, and thus (in theory, anyway) renders any possible argument against the film moot. Like, you can't dislike this movie unless you're a paid shill, Man. It's a childish argument, and it says a lot about Laughlin that it's his primary defense against criticism. And we STILL have the problem that Billy Jack is kicking ass is pretty much antithetical to the peace and love message we're supposed to be getting.
Okay, the movie has some camp value. The lengthy Indian vision scenes - where Billy Jack confronts his "spirit double" and a cave full of demons - are pretty darn funny, in a trippy sort of way. A lot of the dialogue and acting is pathetically bad (I love the scene where a hippie suggests that the Freedom School "BOMB THE HELL OUT OF THEM!"). But is so pompously self-important throughout - and so LONG - that it isn't even enjoyable. Two hours in, you'll be pining for the original film, with the "epic" karate fight in the lawn, Howard Hesseman's rambling improv comedy, and, yes, Coven's camp classic "One Tin Soldier" - and you'll realize that there's still an hour to go! But overall, this is a film that even the biggest bad movie buff should be leery of approaching.
The Train (1964)
Excellent, intelligent action movie about the cost and meaning of war
During the last days of Germany's occupation of France, German Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) arranges for a collection of priceless art from a French museum to be shipped via train to Germany. The museum curator (Suzanne Flon) enlists a cell of French Resistance fighters, led by railroad inspector Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), to rescue the paintings "for the glory of France." Labiche refuses to waste lives saving paintings, but a complicated series of events results in Labiche commandeering the train anyway. However, Von Waldheim is obsessive about his cargo, and Labiche and his colleagues must go to extreme lengths to stop him.
The Train is a truly brilliant movie. As a rousing action film, it is among the best of its kind. It also works as a thoughtful mediation on the cost and meaning of warfare. Skillful direction by John Frankenheimer and two extremely talented leads cause both ends of the film to come off extremely well.
The movie is brutally honest in its examination of war. Labiche says early on that paintings aren't worth risking lives, and a comparison between the value of human life and the value - artistic and monetary - of the art is repeatedly raised. Dozens of lives - French and German - are lost during the mission, callously thrown away to preserve the paintings. Labiche doesn't understand why so many people must die for the sake of art - but that, in and of itself, is largely the film's message. At one point, Boule (Michel Simon), the cranky old engineer assigned to drive the train, justifies the mission by tying it to "the glory of France". It doesn't seem overly convincing to the audience, but then, is saving paintings representing France's national heritage any less of an abstract idea than patriotism itself? If nothing else, the paintings serve as a physical manifestation of national pride, and they are a viable object to fight for - something that can be touched. The brilliant climax, however, provides a stark and brutal answer to Labiche's dilemma; afterward, there can be no question what he values most.
First and foremost, however, the movie is an action film. On a technical level, it is brilliant. The film has an atmosphere of gritty realism which has rarely been surpassed by films of this type. The Train is filmed in crisp black-and-white, which adds immeasurably to the movie's stark, gritty feel. Labiche's heroics remain completely within the realm of the possible, and he wins more or less by luck. There are many impressively-staged sets, with steady dolly shots and pans around crowded rooms and station platforms. The movie's set-pieces are brilliantly staged, including the air raid on the train station, the massive train crash using three real locomotives, and the final confrontation between Labiche and Waldheim. Few war films are as realistic and believable as this, while remaining entertaining and exciting. Maurice Jarre contributes a subtle, effective score to the proceedings.
Burt Lancaster gives a truly exceptional performance as Labiche. An actor capable of over-acting on occasions, Lancaster restrains himself and gives a serious, thoughtful turn as the French Resistance fighter who is forced into a mission he doesn't believe in, who values the lives of his colleagues over abstract ideals and suicide missions. He performs his own stunts, and his physicality serves the role very well. Labiche is tough but not indestructible; but in the end, he is a man who will simply not be stopped, regardless of his personal feelings or the obstacles in his path.
Just as impressive is Lancaster's counterpart, the late, great Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons). His character is obsessed, but not insane. As a man who appreciates the art, he feels it his duty to save the paintings, and will go to any length at all to save them. Scofield gives a fiery, intense performance, making Waldheim a sympathetic and well-rounded character. His final speech to Labiche, as they face-off beside the wrecked train, is poignant and moving in its own twisted way, spelling out the themes of the movie in a most eloquent manner.
Supporting the two leads are a roll call of top-notch French and German talent: Jeanne Moreau as a French war widow who briefly romances Labiche; Suzanne Flon as the idealistic, determined curator; Albert Remy, Charles Millot, Michel Simon, and Jacques Marin as Labiche's colleagues; Wolfgang Priess, Richard Munch and Jean Bouchard as Von Waldheim's colleagues and henchmen.
The Train is simply one of the best, most realistic and entertaining war films of all time. It is to the immense credit of Frankenheimer and his skilled cast and crew that they were able to pull off both realism and entertainment without sacrificing one or the other.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Lavishly made historical soap opera
It's the reign of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), and as usual, the Boleyn family is plotting to take advantage of his inability to have a son with Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent). The weak but ambitious Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and their arrogant Uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) enlist Anne (Natalie Portman) to be the King's mistress - but the headstrong Anne proves unsuitable, and so Anne's demure sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) fills the role instead. Mary has the bad luck to fall for Henry, who dumps her when she becomes pregnant. Henry falls for Anne, but she is more reluctant: she manipulates him into divorcing Katharine, severing ties with Rome, and marrying her. Unable to bear Henry a son, Anne quickly falls out of his favor, and she must rely on her sister to save her life.
Yes, it's another film set in Tudor England, and the only new thing "The Other Boleyn Girl" can claim credit for is bringing Mary Boleyn to our attention. It's all been done before, and better. It's a lavishly made film with good acting and excellent production values; but story- and character-wise, it never rises above the level of melodrama.
The most interesting aspect of this film is its exploration of women in the 16th Century. Anne and Mary are loving sisters who are torn apart by their family's ambition. This was a time when women were nothing more than pawns of their family; society condemned them to be little more than wives, mothers, sex objects, and pawns in elaborate power games. Love doesn't matter, as marriages are arranged and parents can break up any relationship they dislike (as with Anne's match with Henry Percy). Girls like Mary simply accept their fate, leading to personal ruin and a miserable life. For a woman like Anne to stand up to the King is unthinkable; but in an age where women have no rights, it's the only way to gain the slightest bit of power.
The movie does a good job sketching this issue, and sets up a game of one-ups-manship between Anne and Mary. But this never really goes anywhere. Anne may be willing to sell Mary out to advance herself and her family, but Mary is too polite, and too noble to do the same. This would be interesting, if the first hour of the film isn't spent setting up a "Battle of the Boleyns". Mary is almost saintly in her nobility and loyalty to Anne, and in light of what happens here, one might question why. She's endearingly sincere, but as a result, she's a rather boring character compared to naughty Anne.
The movie also errs in skimming over the historical context in question. The movie somehow manages to go its whole length barely mentioning, if they do at all, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Archbishop Cranmer - you know, the guys who made Henry's reign interesting - let alone the momentous changes set forth by Henry's actions. It's not dumbed-down history, it's non-existent history. We don't even get to see Anne's influence on Henry's reign. Does Anne have interest in religious reform? We don't hear about it, except in one or two oblique lines of dialogue. Yes, the politics are not the point, but how can you create a film about Henry VIII without acknowledging his achievements?
Curiously, I watched Anne of the Thousand Days this past week as well, and it shares the same basic flaw. Both films do a good job of establishing our characters and portraying Henry and Anne's decidedly rocky courtship, but once Anne actually assumes the throne, the movie goes south due to much-too-quick pacing and lack of focus. Unfortunately, here this flaw is magnified by MTV-style editing and complete lack of historical and political context, causing things to zip by at a ridiculous pace. Natalie Portman's acting and the powerful execution scene go some way towards redeeming this, but we get little or no indication of why Anne and Henry fall out of love; it just happens.
One of the most egregious bits is the ending. As in AotTD, we are also needlessly reminded in a neon-light display at the end that ELIZABETH I IS ANNE'S DAUGHTER! YES! THAT ELIZABETH! THE DAUGHTER HENRY DIDN'T WANT AND THAT HE KILLED ANNE FOR! In both instances, gimme a break. Is there in anyone the audience who doesn't know this going in?
Technically, the movie is gorgeous: the costumes, music and art decoration are as gorgeous as any other period film you care to name, but that comes with the territory. The real revelation here is Kieran McGuigan's ravishing cinematography, full of moody colors and tones that create an almost surreal storybook atmosphere.
The cast is generally good. Natalie Portman is an astonishing Anne, ravishingly beautiful throughout and capturing Anne's fiery and strong-willed nature (not to mention vastly improving on her previously naff English accent). Scarlett Johansson is a good Mary, although her role is the weaker of the two. Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a knock-out performance as the girls' sympathetic but helpless mother, with Mark Rylance and David Morissey appropriately loathsome. Jim Sturgess, Juno Temple and Benedict Cumberbatch are good enough in supporting roles, although Ana Torrent is a rather clichéd and uninteresting Katherine. But the film's weak spot is undoubtedly Eric Bana. Normally a very good actor, Bana attempts to create an unusually understated Henry, but instead he ends up a dreadful bore. Even in his angry scenes he is too nice to be the capricious monster we know Henry as. Even Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' scenery-chewing on The Tudors is light-years ahead of Bana's Henry.
The Other Boleyn Girl lives up to its source novel and its own billing. It's a pretty good historical soap opera, but that's about all it is. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
Entertaining, lavishly produced period piece
King Henry VIII (Richard Burton) is the absolute ruler of England, handsome, athletic, lusty, loved by his people - but unable to produce a son by his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Irene Papas). Henry's wandering eye soon turns to Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold), the daughter of a minor nobleman (Michael Hordern) whose older daughter, Mary (Valerie Gearon), already had a turn as the King's mistress. But Anne is determined not to follow her sister and be discarded, and when Henry's adviser Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle) breaks up her marriage to Henry Percy (Terence Wilson), Anne is infuriated. Eventually, Anne does fall for Henry - but forces him to marry her. Henry breaks with the Catholic Church and discards Katharine, but no sooner does he marry Ann than their relationship begins to sour. When Anne proves also unable to produce a son, Henry tires of her and enlists his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) to do away with Anne by any means necessary.
"Anne of the Thousand Days" is a fine cinematic exploration of one of history's most infamous love affairs. Although featuring its share of flaws, it achieves what it sets out to do. It's an entertaining, intelligent and enjoyable period piece, lavishly mounted, handsomely photographed, and impeccably acted. It is never boring, which is quite an accomplishment in a 145 minute period film.
The film gives a stirring portrait of a well-known and well-worn subject. Henry is presented as a capricious beast, given to fits of monstrous rage when roused; when he is unhappy, no one is happy. His attempts to woo Anne are both pathetic and monstrous; the idea of him breaking up Anne's engagement to have her as a plaything is simply disgusting. If we didn't know how the story ended, we might have sympathy for Henry, a spoiled brat unused to rejection and enchanted by a girl he can't have. The charm is quickly worn off by those who are sacrificed along the way - Wolsey, Thomas More (William Squire), Bishop Fisher (Joseph O'Connor), and of course the momentous break with the Catholic Church, a momentous expediency which ultimately serves only to give Henry unlimited authority. How many people must die for Henry's whims? And more than that, a whim he's going to grow tired of in a few years' time? This is the true measure of Henry's evil, his use of human lives as tools for his own personal gain, even when the gain is only temporary.
As we all know, it's not going to end well, as Henry's affection for Anne runs rather shallow; she doesn't given him a male child, and he has no further use for her. Discarding his best advisers, he turns to Cromwell, a man lacking in scruples, to dispose of his wife; he moves on to his next conquest, Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson), without a hint of regret. Richard Burton is well-cast as Henry; beyond the physical resemblance, he handles Bridget Boland and John Hale's muscular dialogue as if he were born speaking it.
We are also given an uncommonly sympathetic Anne. Anne is portrayed as a headstrong girl who has the nerve to stand up to the King; an act which, in 16th Century England, was one of uncommon courage. Manipulated by her ambitious relatives into a relationship she doesn't want, denied the love of her fiancée by Henry, she vents her rage towards the King in public. Eventually, seduced by power and worn down by Henry's constant badgering, she does fall for him - but the honeymoon is over before it's even begun; the people openly despise her, the King's advisors distrust her, and worst of all, she can't produce Henry's son. Before long, she finds herself on trial for her life, a victim of her capricious and unsympathetic husband. Genevieve Bujold's performance is fiery and charismatic; I am not an Anne fan by any means, but even I was moved to sympathy during the later sections of the film, as she is targeted by her ungrateful husband for destruction. Bujold is a brilliant Anne: beautiful, passionate, and sympathetic, and she dominates the film every time she's on screen.
The movie moves along at a brisk clip for the half, as Henry tries to woo Anne and affect his divorce. The film is filled with witty, intelligent banter between Henry and Anne. The dialogue is reasonably authentic, avoiding the cutesy self-awareness plaguing many other period films (cf. The Lion in Winter), the portrayal of the events accessible and entertaining. This is history for the masses, and as such, it's very well-done.
However, after Anne and Henry's wedding, the movie seems to move along too quickly, skimming over many important events and points - most notably Anne's involvement in the reform of the Church, which is barely even mentioned. The film features a powerful climactic meeting between Anne and Henry in the Tower, where Anne tells Henry off in a brilliant speech, but the film is capped off with a clunk when the speech is repeated via narration at the very end (over a shot of young Princess Elizabeth toddling around the courtyard).
The film is lavishly mounted, with gorgeous costumes, beautiful cinematography (by Arthur Ibbetson), and a handsome score by Georges Delerue. The movie makes an interesting companion piece to A Man for All Seasons, which it strongly resembles appearance-wise (besides sharing a common subject).
The supporting cast is quite good, particularly Anthony Quayle as an unusually sympathetic Wolsey, John Colicos as the shifty fly-on-the-wall Cromwell, and William Squire as a dignified Thomas More. Some performances don't come off too well - Peter Jeffrey is an uncommonly bland Duke of Norfolk, and Irene Papas seems badly miscast as Katherine - but they're in the minority.
While not a masterpiece, Anne of the Thousand Days is a very well-made and enjoyable film, a bit of crowd-pleasing historical entertainment.
Exquisitely photographed, but empty and often dull
Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) was born with the love of and desire to create music. He is the Court Composer for Austrian Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) and lives a relatively contented life, even if his music is less-than-brilliant. But when Salieri encounters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), the young, arrogant, vulgar - and brilliant - composer, he realizes just how feeble his attempts at music are. Salieri denounces God and declares a campaign of destruction against Mozart; he is enraptured by Mozart's music while hating the man, and will go to seemingly any length to destroy him.
Based on Peter Schafer's play, Amadeus should be a great film. It has an intriguing story, a marvelous production design, full of glittering and gorgeous period detail, a talented director in Milos Foreman, and a score by Mozart - which, if nothing else, should provide some amount of enjoyment. So what is it about Amadeus that doesn't work? A combination of factors, from a bizarre cast to a weak screenplay with a startling lack of authenticity to an overall feeling of staginess that doesn't translate well to film.
Let's start first with the screenplay. I am unfamiliar with Schafer's play, so I will not bother comparing his screenplay to the stage script. But the screenplay falls prey to something fatal: anachronism. The dialogue and characters are extremely modern to point of being post-modern, only creating an air of inauthenticity which strikes a false note from the get-go. This is a legitimate approach to a subject - it worked well enough in A Man for All Seasons and Becket - and, to be fair, using arcane period language carries its own perils. However, it takes an accomplished writer to pull it off, and if Schaffer is such a writer he doesn't evidence it here. The movie isn't convincing for a second as a period piece set in 18th Century Austria. As with The Lion in Winter, we lose track of the historical context in order to keep up with the witty and anachronistically self-aware dialogue, and the film suffers greatly for it.
The cast is another bizarre aspect. The casting of profoundly American actors in virtually every role produces a disconcerting effect which only exacerbates the problems of script and character. F. Murray Abraham is good as Salieri, but his performance is subtle and understated to the point of being dull. It would have been interesting to see how the original Salieri, Paul Scofield, tackled the role; he was an actor who can be understated without boring the audience. Tom Hulce is an odd choice as Mozart, but Hulce actually handles the part very well, and is at least fun to watch. Elizabeth Berridge on the other hand is absolutely dreadful and out-of-place as Mozart's wife, with a distracting New York accent. Jeffrey Jones and Simon Callow (the original Mozart) are quite good in smaller roles, but they don't have a lot of time to register. The rest of the cast is made up of talented actors - Christine Ebersole, Roy Dotrice, Charles Kay, Barbara Bryne, Cynthia Nixon - with virtually nothing to do.
Most of Amadeus's quality comes from its admittedly lavish production values, but when coupled with the "modern" dialogue and characters and the bizarre cast, they only add another discordant note to the film. The story is rather interesting - the idea of Salieri as a man who can recognize musical genius while lacking all but the most remedial talent - but it's overwhelmed by a plethora of banal plot ideas and character development and trite symbolism (reaching its nadir when Salieri burns a crucifix in protest of God's favoring Mozart), as well as horrendous pacing. Too much time is spent watching operas and musical performances by Mozart and Salieri. Not a bad idea sparingly - we ARE watching a film about a composer - but used repeatedly, they only slow the film's pace to a painful, deadening crawl. At 160 minutes, such sloth is fatal. Oh, the music is brilliant, but we've always known Mozart was a talented composer; we didn't need this film to tell us that.
So, to sum up, Amadeus is a dull if nice-looking slog. To answer the Emperor's question: "Is it modern?" The answer is yes, and it's very much to the film's detriment. "Though the libretto was written by accomplished artists, the plot is that of a third-rate operetta" (Phillip Ziegler).
If it's possible to make a dumber movie... let me know, okay?
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is still, after all these years, an embittered man who can't forget and move on from his traumatic 'Nam experiences. Living in Thailand and working as, I dunno, a boat man or something, he reluctantly aids a group of pacifist Christian mercenaries (Julie Benz and Paul Schulze) in a trip to war-torn Myanmar to aid victims of the government repression. Low and behold, our misguided missionaries are soon captives of the vicious, evil, rapacious government troops (who love nothing more than cutting off old lady's arms and throwing babies into fire) who for some reason don't kill them. Rambo makes another trip, this time accompanied by a team of loud-mouthed but largely ineffectual and wimpy mercenaries. Long story short: bullets and arrows fly, entrails are ripped out, the screen is spattered with ridiculous CGI-augmented gore, and all is right with the world.
Sly Stallone returns, older, tougher and more incomprehensible than ever, in the latest installment of the Rambo franchise. Exactly what Sly thinks he's accomplishing by rehashing the hits of his halcyon youth is beyond me - but clearly, there's something of an audience for these films, so why not? While Rocky Balboa was at least mildly diverting, re-capturing some of the spirit of the original, Rambo is a blood-soaked, utterly brainless film with nothing to offer but loads of CGI-aided ultra-violence.
There really isn't much to discuss with Rambo. The first three films at least had some message or characterization, even if they were cheesy at times. But this time, clocking it at barely 90 minutes (10 of them are credits), the movie neatly dispenses with character and plot, and focuses entirely on the blood-'n'-guts factor. The violence here is ridiculously extreme - Rambo rips out people's windpipes and entrails, heads explode, bodies are lacerated by .50 machine-gun fire, Burmese are raped and mutilated, people are blowed up by mortar rounds, grenades, and claymores - and it's not even realistic or enjoyable because most of it is augmented by CGI. Stallone's direction is horridly inept, using rapid cutting that would make Michael Bay have a seizure, not to mention making the scenes in question near-impossible to follow.
What about our characters? Rambo is the same epigrammatic anti-social scoundrel who kills people more or less because he's good at it. The missionaries are whiny wimps who are apparently here to show that pacifism sucks. The mercenaries are a slightly more colorful bunch, with Graham McTavish fun as their inventively profane leader, but they are effectively impotent clods who contribute nothing to Rambo's mission but a lot of profanity and whining (and more people to rescue at the climax). The Burmese, be they victims or victimizers, don't have even pathetic attempts at characterizations, although we do learn that the Evil Leader (Maung Maung Khin) is gay. It's just impossible to take any of these seriously, but it's not even entertaining on a base, "look at these people getting machine gunned" way. It's just pathetic, though a few unintentional laughs may be had along the way.
Is the movie somehow important because it deals with a real-life situation - the repressive regime of Than Shwe? Hardly. It's done in such a cartoonish, tertiary way that it overlooks the point. And in any case, there's no real attempt to exploring the issue - it's just a backdrop. This movie could have been set anywhere - Darfur, Tibet, even Iraq - and been largely the same film. The Burmese army are pretty much more faceless dudes for Rambo to waste. Rambo's "violence solves everything" policy is a bit hard to swallow too, but then no one comes to these films for the politics (I hope).
What more can be said about Rambo? Even Michael Bay and Uwe Boll would find it incoherent and poorly made. Even Quentin Tarantino would find it excessively, ridiculously violent. Even Keanu Reeves and Chuck Norris would laugh at Sly's excuse for a performance. Even Aung San Suu Kyi would find the portrayal of the Burmese government laughably over-the-top. Even Paul Wolfowitz would probably blanch at the thick-headed bellicosity displayed in Rambo's style of foreign policy. And even fans of 300 would find the movie cartoonish and ridiculous.
Well, on that last count... maybe not.
The Nun's Story (1959)
Stirring, thought-provoking exploration of religion and duty
Gabriele Van Der Maal (Audrey Hepburn) is a head-strong Belgian girl who decides to become a Nun, despite the protests of her surgeon father (Dean Jagger). Gabriele finds her work challenging in the extreme; in order to be successful, she must suppress her individuality, all of her thoughts, memories and desires, and sublimate herself to a collective worship and service of God. As Sister Luke, she works in an insane asylum, a hospital in the Congo, and in a military hospital during World War II. Despite her best efforts, Gabriele struggles to sublimate her personality and pride, but finds herself increasingly unable to do so. Although she becomes acclaimed as a selfless, hard-working nurse, she realizes the truth of her Mother Superior (Edith Evans)' dictum: "You can cheat your sisters, but you can't cheat yourself - or God!"
"The Nun's Story" is a profound, deep and intelligent film. It deals thoughtfully with a difficult subject: What does it mean to become a Nun, to sacrifice your life to religion? Fred Zinneman's handsome, thoughtful film addresses this question in a forthright, honest manner, without passing any judgment on the Catholic Church or the lead character. It also contains the greatest performance of Audrey Hepburn's career, by far.
Nuns haven't had a very good track record on film. The most egregious are films like, say, Sister Act or The Sound of Music, which depict Nuns as clownish figures, repressed women who just want to have a good time, ride motorcycles, sing, dance or, God help us, fly. Even more serious explorations of the theme (Black Narcissus, The Bells of St. Mary's) are largely tainted with an outsider view of Catholicism, and tend to idealize or damn it. Even worse, a seemingly never-ending chain of Hollywood films and TV shows seems grimly determined to convince us that religion is a sham, and religious people are inherently evil - murderers, pedophiles, or hypocrites.
"The Nun's Story" doesn't. Its depiction of the Catholic Church is remarkably uncritical, yet neither is it an endorsement. It is an incredibly frank exploration of Catholicism, and specifically Nunnery. The early scenes showing the Nuns' training makes it clear that being a Nun isn't something people do for fun - it's serious, hard work. In order to become a Nun, one must strive for perfection, sublimate individuality, recognize and criticize even the tiniest faults - and shed all vestiges of their previous life. One can't even talk without permission, or express their private thoughts or feelings - except to condemn them as fault or sin. Only the most devoted, strong-willed women can achieve this without bowing out or losing their sanity; and it's unlikely that they'll be singing and dancing with Whoopi Goldberg any time soon.
This process proves exceedingly difficult for Gabriele, who is a headstrong, proud and intelligent girl. At first, she willingly tackles being a Nun as a challenge; we never learn why she decided to become a Nun (unhappy family life? Personal problems? A sense of religious duty or calling?), but it's not all that important. It isn't long, however, before Gabriele's faults begin to surface. In the ultra-repressive and controlled environment of the Monastery, Gabriele finds herself increasingly critical of and disgusted in herself. The movie reaches an early climax when one of Sister Luke's mothers (Ruth White) suggests that she deliberately fail a medical exam in order to assuage feelings of pride and guilt. This provides an agonizing conflict: a viewer might reasonably ask whether it's right to ask a Nun to be dishonest, which might be a bigger flaw than pride.
But even as Sister Luke becomes an exemplary nurse, she finds herself unable to sublimate herself to the Church. She is nearly killed when she gives water to an asylum patient (Colleen Dewhurst) without permission. She becomes more and more independent in the Congo, taking initiative without her Mothers' knowledge and developing an attraction towards the handsome Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). She sees all of these as faults, even when her superiors don't. Her Mothers and Sisters are supportive and understanding, recognizing Sister Luke's virtues and skill - but she can only see the flaws. World War II provides the final straw; when her family and countrymen are being slaughtered by the Nazis, how can she possibly remain impartial? It's impossible to say Sister Luke isn't a strong woman, but her inability to see her strengths is her fatal flaw.
Fred Zinneman's direction, as usual, is handsome and at times beautiful. As in other works, his straightforward directorial style lets the actors, sets and locations do the work. Robert Anderson's script gives intelligent dialog and well-rounded, sensitive characters, avoiding the stereotypes and clichés of religious films, condemning neither the Catholic Church nor our flawed protagonist. Franz Planer provides gorgeous cinematography, particularly in the Congo scenes, and Franz Waxman gives a beautiful score.
Audrey Hepburn's performance is simply remarkable. Shedding her trademark uber-chic Givenchy costumes and lacking make-up, she lets her true beauty shine through. The device of letting us see only her face through her habit has a remarkably powerful pay-off. But more than this, Hepburn perfectly portrays the anguish and emotional conflict of Sister Luke; her expressive face alone conveys more than ten pages of screenplay. Anyone doubting Audrey's acting ability absolutely has to see her performance here; it's a revelation. The supporting cast includes fine performances from Peter Finch, Dean Jagger, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Niall McInnes, and Colleen Dewhurst, complementing Hepburn's performance and creating well-rounded characters of their own.
The Nun's Story is simply remarkable. Few other films are as honest about religion; and, truth be told, few are as intelligent, well-rounded and thought-provoking period. It is a masterpiece.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Powerful, intense meditation on the allure and repulsion of violence
American astrophysicist David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a wimpy pacifist who grows tired of the strife and violence raging across America. Along with his pretty young wife, Amy (Susan George), he travels to George's hometown in Cornwall, England. Sumner quickly finds that beneath the idyllic scenery and veneer of small-town friendliness lie a clannish society based on violence and exclusion-ism. A group of townspeople begin playing a series of increasingly vicious pranks on David and Amy, culminating in Amy's rape by two of the more repulsive townspeople (Del Henney and Ken Hutchison). Things still continue on, until David takes in the village idiot, Harry Niles (David Warner), after hitting him with a car and tries to save him from a mob who saw him abduct a young girl. David tries to sort the situation out peacefully, but before long he finds himself resorting to violence to defend himself and his home.
"Straw Dogs" is an amazingly powerful film, and a widely misunderstood one as well. Critics who seem unable to analyze films on anything but surface meaning accuse it of glamorizing sadism and violence; feminists harp on the film's rape scene and the portrayal of Amy, denouncing the film as a chauvinist fantasy. Both readings of the film are wholly off-base. Although perhaps not as deep as some of Sam Peckinpah's other works, it's easily his best shy of "The Wild Bunch", and deals with a deep (and disturbing) topic: humanity's lust for and glorification of violence and death.
Say the name Sam Peckinpah to anyone and what comes to mind? In pretty much every instance, the answer is violence. Graphic violence, slow-motion shoot-outs with bright red blood spurting out of bullet wounds. This is a simplistic way to look at Peckinpah; in his best work (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch) he created deep themes and well-rounded characters worthy of a classic novel or play. Even some of his weaker efforts, like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Cross of Iron, have interesting ideas to present, even if not entirely successful. But, it is certainly true that violence - its effects, its terror, its place in society, and, most of all, social enjoyment of it - is a central theme of Peckinpah's films. Merely judging "Straw Dogs" on the fact that it IS violent is childish and simplistic; it's much more fruitful to address WHY Peckinpah opted to make it violent, and what he's trying to say.
"Straw Dogs" is perhaps the ultimate distillation of Peckinpah's views on violence. Peckinpah was an ardent fan of Robert Ardrey, the playwright-anthropologist who hypothesized that humans are inured to violence by instinctual urges rather than social pressure or upbringing. This is a very hard view to argue with, for in spite of hypocritical denunciation of violence in the media, the raging street violence, crime, warfare, and violent action movies, TV shows and video games, indicates that the human race thrives on and revels in killing - no matter how much we may like to think otherwise.
"Straw Dogs" endorses Ardrey's world-view: the people of our out-of-the-way hamlet are easily driven to violence, their sins mostly overlooked by the hypocritically pious town leaders. Even a pacifist like David Sumner is not immune to the allure of murder; his claims of standing up principle (defending Niles, the murderous village idiot, from a mob) are dubious at best. The film has been read as a revenge fantasy a la Death Wish, which is ridiculous; Amy doesn't even tell David about the rape. Rather, it's a cumulative revenge; a man stuck in a small town with no friends, fed up with violence in his own culture, his taunting and torment here, his unhappy marriage to his wife, and his own weakness, allows his long-repressed rage to explode. In the end, even David Sumner is capable of horrific violence; not only that, he enjoys it. And the sheer visceral thrill of watching vile bad guys get handed their just deserts implicates us in the violence as well; none of us are innocent, and all of us are guilty.
Peckinpah's direction is effective, presenting violence in all its glory and horror; he succeeds at showing an externally beautiful but inwardly hideous small town. The cast is good, if unspectacular: Dustin Hoffman embodies David Sumner as impotent professor and makes his transition frighteningly believable. Susan George is quite good as Amy, the confused, repressed young girl who married a guy who isn't right for her. The supporting cast is adequate, with T.P. McKenna and Del Henney giving the strongest performances as the well-meaning but ineffectual Sheriff and the most sympathetic of David and Amy's tormentors.
Straw Dogs is a powerful, disturbing mediation on violence, with a power and force that few films a possess. It is a true masterpiece.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Intelligent, witty "dramedy" with one serious flaw
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a hard-partying, womanizing Texas Congressman with no discernible legislative record. In 1980, he finds himself becoming interested in the plight of Afghanistan, which is in the midst of a brutal war with the USSR. On the auspices of his old flame, arch-conservative Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), he travels to Afghanistan to assess the situation, and is stunned by what he sees. He returns to the US determined to help the Afghans, only to find his colleagues extremely indifferent to the situation - and himself under investigation for allegations of drug use. Undeterred, Wilson recruits Herring and the vulgar, outcast CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to begin a convoluted arms deal involving Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and a mostly unknowing US Congress. Ultimately, the Afghans defeat the Soviets, but while America celebrates their victory, Wilson and Avrakotos find their warnings about the instability of post-war Afghanistan falling on deaf ears.
Charlie Wilson's War is slick brain candy, a really neat film for the more intellectual viewer and fun entertainment for the average film-goer. The movie assembles an astonishing array of talent, both in front of and behind the camera, and delivers on its promise of being one hell of a good time. The film's has only one flaw, which we'll arrive at later. As an examination of the improbable way in which the 20th Century's largest covert war was waged - and, perhaps, the way that things get done by the CIA and other intelligence agencies - it's fascinating.
The movie is interesting on a number of levels. The story portrayed in the movie - with all of its outrageous double-dealings, sneaky covert operations, and, perhaps most of all, its success - would be so outrageous as a work of fiction, that it could easily be dismissed as a satire. But things really did work out this way, at least within reasonable bounds. The film portrays our three protagonists in an interesting way that highlights their virtues without obscuring their flaws. Wilson as a person who is unapologetic about his vices (even embracing them) - yet willing to embrace a righteous cause. Herring is something of an elitist, and her born-again attitude of righteousness is off-putting - yet she's deeply committed to the cause of the Afghan people. Avrakotos is a CIA outsider with an attitude problem, looked down upon because of his "street" background - yet his love of country and hatred of Communism are unwavering. The fact that this odd trio could play a major role in the downfall of the USSR is not only proof that anyone can make a difference, but also that truth is stranger than fiction. It's also very interesting that all of this is played as a comedy - not too surprising, given that our writer is Aaron Sorkin, but it's an interesting way to approach this story.
The movie does, however, have one drawback, which is a bit surprising. The film seems to unabashedly celebrate Wilson and Co.'s achievement. This is fine - nothing wrong with defeating the Soviet Union, is there? - until one considers that out of the ashes of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan came the Taliban and eventually al-Qaeda. Regardless of the US's level of responsibility, it happened, and the movie's portrayal of Wilson's success is almost unmitigated. To be fair, the movie does address this issue towards the end, with a rather topical speech by Wilson about the US's inability to clean up after themselves, but it's done in such a tertiary manner that the average viewer will probably not take much from it. The overall impression will be that these three remarkable people helped the Afghans defeat the Soviets. This isn't a fatal drawback, mind you, but it's one troubling aspect of an otherwise brilliant movie.
The film's talent is remarkable. The legendary Mike Nichols delivers a slick, gorgeous-looking production; the material is perfectly suited to his understated, wry directorial style. Sorkin delivers yet another brilliant screenplay; the film has dozens of quotable lines and classic Sorkin exchanges (the best being the "Scotch bottle" discussion between Wilson and Avrakotos), and keeps something of a political and historical perspective behind it. The film's cast is a marvel: Tom Hanks gives a fine performance as the lovable rogue with a cause, Julia Roberts is alternately charming and repulsive as the obnoxious but committed Joanne, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman steals every scene (par usual) as the abrasive Gus. The always-lovely Amy Adams takes another step on her road to stardom as Wilson's long suffering assistant, and Ned Beatty, Om Puri, Emily Blunt, Christopher Denham, and Ken Stott flesh out the supporting cast.
Charlie Wilson's War is an intelligent and fun movie, a wonderful bit of a-bit-more-than-light entertainment. The fact that it decides not to be more than that shouldn't be held against it; it's brilliant at what it does.
V for Vendetta (2005)
Reasonably entertaining film, juvenile political screed
In the not-too-distant future, Britain is (surprise!) a dystopian, totalitarian state ruled by Fascist Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), which exercises complete control over its citizens, ruling through fear and intimidation. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a naive young Londoner who is saved from a gang of lascivious policemen by V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. V soon initiates a campaign of terrorism against Sutler's government, hoping to spark a popular insurrection. He uses his charm and coercion to convert Evey to his cause, and soon the public begins to tire of being oppressed. Police Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), who is assigned to track down V, begins to uncover evidence of government atrocities during the course of his investigation. It all builds up to a massive popular revolution, and Sutler's government stands on the verge of collapse.
"V For Vendetta" is a film that, while reasonably entertaining on one level as an action film, is laughable in terms of its political views. It awkwardly positions itself between being a liberal position paper for standing up for freedom and civil liberties, and an endorsement of Anarchism for anarchy's sake. On a technical level, the film can't be faulted; on a thematic level, the film is laughably immature.
While the original graphic novel explored the complexities and ambiguities of the dichotomous political views, Anarchism and Fascism, the film takes a simplistic pro-anarchy stand. For all its posturing as a screed against totalitarian excess (with an occasionally insightful line, like V's "People shouldn't be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of their people"), the movie plays as an endorsement of anarchy (or perhaps Nihilism) and Revolution, with Government as something inherently evil. The film treats us to yet another dystopian future Britain, which we've seen in everything from Brave New World to 1984 to Fahrenheit 451 to Brazil to Children of Men. It's nothing we haven't seen many times before, nothing that hasn't been done much better in other films, TV series, and books. As a result, the film's political views have the grace, sophistication, and subtlety of a campus protester, or a teen-aged punk poseur. It might be valid to argue that violent revolution is the only cure for an oppressive regime; but V for Vendetta seems to think that Revolution is a good thing in and of itself. The people launch a massive uprising against the government at the end, and we're expected to cheer; but the film is curiously silent on what exactly the Revolution stands for.
In spite of an occasional verbose speech about lost freedoms and civil liberties, in the end, V doesn't seem to stand for much more than personal revenge (as he was victimized in a government concentration camp) and nihilism. It's hard to care much for Sutler's Big Brother state, but it's equally hard to support V when he seems to lack a goal beyond destruction of authority. The movie seems to think that Revolution for Revolution's sake is the answer, failing to pose, let alone address, the question of "What's next?" This is in fact the key question; 20th Century revolutions in Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, Cuba, Algeria and elsewhere went sour as soon as the Revolution was won, leading to the creation of some of the most repressive regimes in the history of Mankind. Is the fact OF Revolution at the end more important than the outcome? Only a hard-core Anarchist - or, more pointedly, a teenager who thinks it's cool to pose as anti-authoritarian - would think so. Even those Revolutions who succeeded had a leader (or leaders) to guide them - with V dead, should we really expect that his uprising will have inherently positive affects? Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, but even such a cliché insight is far beyond the childish Revolution-chic mindset of this film.
V's morality is made more dubious by the methods he employs. His murder of government officials is one thing; his treatment of Evey is something else entirely. He kidnaps Evey, and when his attempts at subtle and charming persuasion fail, he kidnaps her, and sends her to a faux-prison, where she's interrogated, tortured, and broken down until she becomes committed to V's cause. Just when we think we're seeing a verifiable example of Sutler's brutality, we actually see our alleged protagonist in the role of Torturer, sinking down to the level of the enemy. It would be one thing this were presented as an example of V's moral ambiguity, but since the film makes no claims that V is doing anything but good elsewhere, it serves as a rather disquieting sequence.
As a simple film, V for Vendetta is pretty good. The cinematography and visuals are often stunning, really capturing the feel of a bleak dystopian future state. Hugo Weaving deserves much credit for making V an intriguing character, considering we never see his face. And the movie has some interesting ideas, including the use of Stephen Rea's Police Inspector as a plot device which uncovers past government atrocities. The action scenes are entertaining and well-done, if straining credulity at times. The cast is mostly good: while Natalie Portman is merely adequate, Stephen Rey, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Piggot-Smith, Sinead Cusack and Roger Allam give solid supporting turns.
So, am I being churlish for focusing on V for Vendetta's political views? Well, considering that they're positioned as the centerpiece of the film, I think it's more than fair to focus my review on them. V for Vendetta has nothing more insightful to say about politics and terrorism than a college freshman who's read a Michael Moore book. And for a film that, while somewhat entertaining, positions itself as a political statement, this is a serious flaw.