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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The title of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 film "Straw Dogs" is in reference to a type of ancient Chinese artifact that was worshiped, and then sacrificially burned. When seen in this context, the title makes perfect sense despite the fact that it is never mentioned by any of the characters. The movie is the story of how a normally meek, cowardly man "burns away" his personality and finds within himself the ability for violence and murder. When it was released, it was thrust to the forefront to the "violence in movies" debate alongside such films as "Dirty Harry" and "A Clockwork Orange." And it is, at times, quite violent. However, this film contains content that goes beyond mere violence to take it into another realm of shock. Watching "Straw Dogs" was the most painful viewing experience of my life. However, the fact that it is a necessary, important film is inescapable. Much has been made of how it is Peckinpah's statement on the nature of masculinity and manhood, complemented by his misogynistic, masochistic view of the world in general and women in particular. However, I believe there is another level it can be viewed on-that "Straw Dogs" is a nightmarish vision of the evil and beastial aspects inherent in every human being. It is a brutally harsh, cynical, and hateful cinema experience, routinely counted as one of the great disturbing movies along with films like "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" and "Battle Royale." Most films side with one set of characters against another. "Straw Dogs" does not. It despises all of the participants in its drama, from the "protagonist" David Summer (Dustin Hoffman in one of the great roles in his long, wonderful career) and his vixen wife Amy (Susan George in a brave, powerful performance) to the group of inbred English miscreants (a European counterpart to the Mountain Men in "Deliverance") who terrorize them. Peckinpah holds all of these people in contempt, and the particularly sadistic ending purges them all, in one way or another, from the system. There are two famous disturbing sequences in the movie. The first is the rape of Amy by two of the English hoodlums. This scene starts off innocently enough, with Charlie, Amy's former boyfriend, appearing at the Summer cottage. It soon turns ugly, however, as Charlie hits Amy and forces her into submission. During the actual act, Peckinpah uses quick cuts to tell the story in implied images. The action becomes something more than rape, however, when quick cuts to Amy's face seem to suggest she is enjoying what is happening to her. This was HUGELY controversial, angering women around the world. However, in the next few moments we see Amy ravaged again by Scut, Charlie's friend. Her horrified reaction to this development draws the line and shows Amy as a real woman, not a sex-addict (as many critics claimed the scene suggested). This is even more appalling when we realize that David never finds out about his wife's rape at the hands of the men. The second violent scene is the 30-minute finale. David, inadvertantly protecting a simpleton-giant named Niles (who is guilty of a completely different crime) in his house, fights off the gang as they try to break in to get at the large man. In this sequence, men are killed with shotguns, beaten to death with fire pokers, and (in a truly startling moment) garroted with a bear trap. While fighting, David gets no help from his parasitic, immature wife-who has turned to Charlie as her protector. Only when he slaps her does Amy listen to David. Is Peckinpah suggesting violence is the only way to get respect? That's what many contend. Also, the only sympathetic character in the entire film, the Colonel, is shot dead in cold blood by one of the drunken mob. After the massacre, David drives Niles back into town. "I don't know my way home," the large man tells the American. "Neither do I," is David's chilling answer, a smile curling over his lips. This movie stares angrily in the void of the human soul. It is unlike any of Peckinpah's other films, because, while many are very violent, he usually looked on his characters (who were killers, robbers, and bounty hunters) and found warmth and humanity in them. With "Straw Dogs," he looked upon his subjects and found only perversion, sickness, and hate.
Few films ever made have been as controversial as 1994's "Natural Born Killer." Some critics felt it was an atrocity-an assault on good taste, movie-making craft, and humanity in general. Others felt that it was a masterpiece, a cinematic statement that went where no movie had gone before. I believe, personally, that the film is a must-see. Not because I think it is one of the best movies ever made (there are flaws, like an over-abundance of themes that muddy the film's message), not because I think it's one of director Oliver Stone's best ("Platoon" and "JFK" are both superior films), but because I think that it represents a unique cinematic experience. You will never see any film that affects you in the same way that "Natural Born Killers" does. In that way it shares the same place in filmdom with such diverse titles as "Eraserhead," "Being John Malkovich," and "Plan 9 from Outer Space": there's just nothing out there like it. Its attitude towards its lurid, frightening, and oftentimes repulsive subject matter alone distinguishes it from many other movies. It has fun with death and violence in a way that makes you contemplate on the nature of what is being shown to you on screen. The fact that it simultaneously decries and glorifies violence would seem hypocritical if the movie seemed to be unaware of the conflict of interest inherent in it. However, Stone is all to cognizant of the problem, and is indicting himself as well as the glory-chasing media with the final product. The fact that the two serial killers are watching "Scarface," a movie Stone wrote, is as important for its commentary on the filmmaker as its film buff in-jokeness. Another aspect of this movie that received a lot of attention was its singular editing style. Characterized by multiple cuts, lighting patterns, filming techniques, and even some animated interludes, the movie acts as a technical geek show. It is a full-frontal assault on your eyes and ears. And I, for one, think Stone's jack-hammer style fits his subject perfectly. A wild, disorienting plot deserves a wild, disorienting storytelling style. You will also be hard-pressed to find realistic characters in this movie. Stone has filled "NBK" with a gallery of grotesque monsters, from Tommy Lee Jones' screeching redneck-from-hell prison warden, to Robert Downey Jr.'s parasitic Robin Leach-like talk show host, to Tom Sizemore's virulent psychopathic bad cop. All these characters add to the vision of the film, because an insane film with an insane filming style deserves insane characters. But, when it comes down to it, "Natural Born Killers" is an important modern film not just because of its style, tone, and characters, but because it causes discussion about America's modern obsession with serial killers and the media's infatuation with violence. Pop culture itself is on trial with this movie, and Oliver Stone delivers it a visceral knockout punch. Great soundtrack, too.
"Unforgiven" is one of the greatest films ever made. A fatalistic, dark,
emotional masterpiece, it is the last true Western. It is no accident that
no great Western films have been made since "Unforgiven" came out in 1992.
The film effectively closes the book on any other statements that could be
made in the genre. It is a fitting elegy to a type of film that brought
cinema great achievements ("The Searchers", "Shane", "The Wild Bunch", and
The film chronicles William Munny (Eastwood at his best), a retired gunslinger, who was once the "rootin' tootin' meanest son of a bitch who ever lived," deciding to pick up his guns one more time to kill a few cowboys who mutilated a prostitute. There is a bounty on their head, and Munny is a failing pig farmer trying to raise his two children, so the money looks might promising. Before he sets off, however, Munny picks up his old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). "How long's it been since you fired a gun, Will? Ten years?" Munny answers "Eleven." It is true that Munny is rusted over-he continually says that his wife Claudia "cured him of wrongdoing". However, he says this so much it sounds more like the affirmation of a man in denial than someone who has actually changed.
So Munny and Logan ride off (in several beautifully shot scenes) to meet the Scofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a young hotshot who claims to be a killer. But as the film progresses we learn there is more (or less) to the Scofield Kid than is apparent. As the three men ride toward Big Whiskey, Wyoming (the site of the whore-cutting), the town's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman in one of his great performances), tries to keep order. A brutal, violent, and menacingly intelligent man, Little Bill is a formidable presence indeed. As these elements come together, the film's tension is racketed up to almost unbearable heights. The film's climax is one of the most truthful, brutal, and sobering finales in cinema history. We learn that no one can escape their past, and no man who was once a killer will ever be anything else. As you watch the final scenes, it comes as a sudden shock to you that the people you thought were heroes and villains were nothing of the sort. In a film like "Unforgiven", there are no good guys and bad guys, only a gray existence between the two. That is the message of "Unforgiven": that when it comes to violence, there are no good guys and bad guys, only men who do as much damage to themselves as to others by killing.
That is the film's message, but there are other things in "Unforgiven" that make it unforgettable. The acting is top-notch, including Richard Harris as an ill-fated outsider looking for the bounty, Saul Rubinek as his leach-like biographer, and Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice, the leader of the prostitutes and a singularly unforgiving individual. These characters interact against the backdrop of a quickly eroding culture. The Old West is in its final days in this film, and that sense of soon-to-be-loss carries over the entire movie. "Unforgiven" is a film about the end of something: the end of a lifstyle, the end of a culture, the end of lives. Because it so effectively and brilliantly takes place in this dying time, it acts as the final chapter to the Western genre, ending a celluloid odyssey on a pathos-filled guitar note.
We've come to expect a lot from Paul Thomas Anderson. After his twin
masterpieces "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia", not to mention the
and satisfying "Hard Eight", we knew he was a filmmaker of skill and
So when it was announced that the next PTA film would be a 90-minute
romantic comedy starring (Gasp!) Adam Sandler, I was, for one, not
This man had taken Mark Wahlberg and turned him into someone we could be
proud to watch onscreen. He cast icon Tom Cruise, gave him the character
Frank "T.J." Mackey, and directed the actor to one of the most repulsive,
offensive, and inspired performances of the "Top Gun" star's career. So,
was pretty confident in his ability to handle the star of "Little Nicky".
But, boy, I still wasn't prepared for what I saw. Sandler just wasn't
he was INCREDIBLE. I couldn't believe my eyes-here was the man behind
Crazy Nights" creating a completely realized, utterly human character
studied, nuanced performance. Many have commented on the fact that Barry
Egan, Sandler's character, is not that different from his previous
incarnations. Socially akward and prone to explosive violence, Barry
just be the key to explainging Sandler's Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore.
character helps shine a light on the inner torment of those man-children.
The plot is a bit more complicated than your usual romantic-comedy fair. First off, it's really not a comedy. Second off, the two major players-Sandler and Emily Watson as the beautiful and mysterious Lena Leonard-both have quirks and tension that ordinary movie characters who fall in love don't in movies today. Barry has been terribly scarred (perhaps irreperably) by the constant torment and abuse of his seven sisters. There are several scenes where he bursts into destructive rages for no real reason-to sum it up, this guy has problems. Lena seems to have some of the same hurt simmering under her, but she controls it and accepts Barry for who he is, eventually coming to a stage where she understands him better than anyone truly ever has. Much of "Punch-Drunk Love"'s story is how Egan manages to regain control of himself and experience truly human feelings for the first time. Lena is his salvation-through his devotion to her he saves himself.
The film's other specifics are a bizarre, but extremely original mix of details. Barry is a toilet-plunger salesman. He one day wanders onto a loophole in a snack-foods sponsored contest that would allow him to get enough frequent flier miles to never have to pay for a plane ticket again. First, however, is the nasty business with a small-time porn entrepeneur in Utah who is trying to extort a large sum of money from Barry, using the company's "Four Blonde Brothers" to threaten the (for a time) hapless Egan. The film is so utterly free that to reveal how these disparate elements come together would ruin the movie. Much of the joy of "Punch-Drunk Love" is that you never truly know where the movie is going to go next.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Philip Seymour Hoffman is "the heavy", but he puts a small line of tragedy in his character. Dean Trumbell seems fierce, but a telling look at his "empire" reveals he is all bark and no bite. The always-great Luis Guzman is Sandler's well-wishing co-worker, Lance, who is constantly supportive of Barry despite his doubts about what is really going on inside his boss's head. And Emily Watson is appropriately fascinating and quietly alluring as Lena, who drops her car off one day and admits the next she did it just to meet Barry.
The film might seem weird and violent, but this is truly one of the sweetest movies I have seen at a long time. At its core, "PDL" is decent, honest, and beautiful. It is reminiscent of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", which, despite its rampant drug use and other disturbing subject matter, was a film that had a heart of gold. One of the best of 2002, "Punch-Drunk Love" will be seen in the future as a shining moment for all involved. Here's to hoping it will also be seen as the beginning of Adam Sandler's serious film career.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILER WARNING-MULTIPLE SPOILERS FOLLOW
Tom Hanks has gotten to a stage in his career where he is so uniformly excellent in everything he does that it's beginning to diminish his impact. He gives a great performance in every single movie he does, and at this point his consistent brilliance is causing us to become complacent and not truly pay attention to the fact that he is one of THE great actors of our generation. "Road to Perdition" is a film that is hampered by this fact. While the finished product is nothing to cough at, a lot of it feels remote, not grabbing our attention as much as it should. This is mostly because the two characters we should care about most-Michael Sullivan (Hanks) and his son (Tyler Hoechlin)-do not engage our emotions as they should. The character development of this father and son, a crucial point in the film, is neither as deep or expansive as the other characters in the movie.
The film's plot involves hitman Michael Sullivan being propelled on a quest for revenge after his wife and youngest son are murdered by Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), the loathsome, greedy, and ultimately pathetic son of Irish mob boss John Rooney (a brilliant Paul Newman). With Sullivan after his son's life, Rooney, who is in principle a fair and decent man despite his unlawful business practices, is forced to order a hit on the man he loves like a son. Actually, he loves him more than his own son, which is why this whole situation got started in the first place. The hitman they call to kill Sullivan is a odd-looking photographer of the dead named Maguire (Jude Law). The first time you see this guy, he notices that one of the dead he's shooting (camera, not gun) is not exactly dead-only wounded. Instead of alerting the authorities, however, Maguire finishes the wounded man off-smothering him with an ammonium-soaked handkerchief. From this point on it is clear that Maguire is completely psychotic. Jude Law is very impressive, playing the character as a subdued, quiet loner instead of a raving maniac-thus making the character all the more frightening and monstrous.
The film is filled with powerful moments. Most of these moments belong to Newman, who in his twilight years gives one of his finest performances as a man confronted with an impossible situation, quite aware that he will probably not come out of it alive. The scene where Rooney beats his son after the murder of Sullivan's family, then embraces him saying "God help us", is effective, but it's just the beginning. There is also the incredible scene where Rooney has to order the hit to Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). Newman truly embodies the terrible conflict that faces his character-he doesn't want to order death on his spiritual son, but he just can't let his actual son die either. "God help me" he whispers as he does the deed. "Nothing happens to the kid" is another order, even after Frank warns him that the kid will come for revenge-does Rooney want the son's vengeance? There is a tense scene in a diner between Maguire and Sullivan, a fatalistic speech in a church basement by Rooney that highlights the entire situation, and a brilliantly shot (this film deserved its cinematography credit-wow Conrad Hall was truly great) slow-motion segment where Hanks guns down all of Rooney's men, then (with a look of infinite sadness and pain-Sullivan doesn't want to kill his spiritual father any more than Rooney wants to kill his spiritual son)Rooney himself. Newman's final line, "I'm glad it was you", is heartbreaking and illuminating-he has been aware of the inevitability of his violent death for many years-but he is glad he dies by his "son's" hand. The one moment, however, that should be most powerful has barely any emotional weight at all. The moment where Tom Hanks is shot down from behind by a vengeful Maguire should be shocking and tragic, but it just feels tacked-on. Maybe the director, Sam Mendes, is trying to show how, in Sullivan's world, everyone is just waiting for the bullet with their name on it. But in this case it seems like the film is just being sad for no other reason than to be sad. Hanks' remote character is also at fault (but that is to be blamed on the script, not Hanks, who is brilliant as always). Hoechlin's pretentious monologues at the beginning and end of the film don't help either. Nevertheless, "Road to Perdition" is a very good movie. Great performances, a truly compelling plot, and excellent production values (let me again stress that the cinematography is INCREDIBLE) make this film a keeper. Just a few small flaws keep it from being a follow up masterpiece to Mendes' previous film, the perfect "American Beauty". But those flaws do not diminish its amazing strengths.
When I first heard that Halle Berry was getting publicity over a film called "Monster's Ball", a movie I had never even heard of, I was a little skeptical. I mean, come on, this is HALLE BERRY. The star of "B.A.P.S.". The actress who said "You know what happens to a toad when it gets hit by lightning? The same thing as what happens to everyone else," in "X-Men". I was not convinced. Then I saw the movie and my jaw dropped. Who knew Berry had this in her? A performance of emotion, range, and power, Berry's Leticia Musgrove redefined the actress' career and brought new meaning to the phrase "emotionally distraught". The film's plot, while fundamentally simple, hides layers of emotion and deep character analysis. Billy Bob Thorton is as strong as he's ever been as Hank Grotowski, a selfish and racist prison guard who lives with his vicious and hateful father, Buck (Peter Boyle), and his sweet and utterly decent son Sonny (Heath Ledger). Hank hates his father, who has ruined his life up to this point in time, and also says he hates his son, in who he sees the character traits he lost so long ago. Halle Berry is a deadbeat African-American mom of an overweight son (Coronji Calhoun) with a husband (Sean Combs) who is on Death Row. Unforseen tragic events bring these seemingly unmatchable people together, and their mutual hurt and sadness climaxes in one of the most powerful and emotional love scenes in film history. A common complaint I have with sex in the movies these days is that it doesn't ever seem to make sense with the story. This sex scene, however, is a perfect evolution of the story and is an extension of the two characters' mutual need to feel something other than grief. "Make me feel good" Berry cries in a mix of ecstasy and anguish. In another brilliant moment later in the film, Hank gives oral satisfaction to Leticia, but the moment is not uncomfortable or pointless because it illustrates Hank's devotion to this woman and how he is now wholly devoted to giving everything he has to this other person ("I've never done that before."). His act of rescuing her is his own redemption. "Monster's Ball" is a truly beautiful and effective film about redemption and the importance of our love for other human beings. The final shot, with Hank and Leticia on the front porch of Hank's house with a bowl of ice cream, is one of the most quietly poetic and effective endings I have ever seen, and Hank's final line is a perfect closer to a film about the ultimate redemptive quality of love-"I think we're gonna be alright."
Reese Witherspoon is starting up a nice career starring in fun
romantic-teen-comedies for people my sister's age. This will stand as her
first foray into the world of sweet, easy-on-the-mind comedy films, a type
of film that will dominate the rest of her acting life. I find it slightly
disappointing that we will probably rarely (if ever) see her again in
something like "Election", but Witherspoon is now slowly becoming America's
sweetheart, and if she can live up to the standard that is all we can ask of
The movie itself involves Witherspoon getting into Harvard Law for the sole reason of winning back her snob boyfriend. Selma Blair shows up for the 18th straight film as the "other girl", Luke Wilson is Witherspoon's new love interest (which is obvious the first time you see him), and the rest of the cast is a bunch of character actors no one knows the name of.
It doesn't really matter, seeing as the film is solely a vehicle for the beautiful Witherspoon to work her charm on us. She is not a cynical hero like most teen movie characters are, but a sweet, naive, and utterly determined young woman who succeeds in the end by her very get-to-itiveness. Although much of "Legally Blonde" is rarely in doubt, it provides and hour and a half of silly fun. And sometimes we need that when we're taking a break from "Fight Club" and "American Beauty".
This film could have been so much better. "America's Sweethearts", despite an able cast and a few inspired bits, really doesn't hit the mark. John Cusack is good but clearly not stretched, Catherine Zeta-Jones is on autopilot, and Billy Crystal has nothing to do. This type of movie must be getting WAY too easy for Julia Roberts, who I believe only did this because her pal Joe Roth directed it. "Directed" is a loose term, as Roth really doesn't have a handle on how to do this type of thing yet. He seems to have way too much fun with inappropriate sexual humor and wild, baseless personalities to be given a cast of this talent. Hank Azaria is good as a slimy love interest, but I think it's about time he actually talked in his REAL voice for a change. Clearly, the best parts of this movie are Cusack and Christopher Walken as a batty film director. This isn't the worst film ever made, but it's far from anybody in the cast's best.
Although I debate as to whether or not I truly believe it, I often find myself believing that "Annie Hall" is Woody Allen's best film. This statement is strongly challenged by Woody's other masterpieces like "Manhattan", "Hannah and Her Sisters", "Crimes and Misdermeanors", "Interiors", and "Another Woman", but I have to firmly stand by it because of the fact that this film marked Woody's evolution from the Funniest Man in the Movies to one of cinema's great auteurs. From here Woody graduated from the slapstick silliness of "Bananas" and "Love and Death" to the more emotionally and intellectually mature mature films he has been making since then (save one or two). The film takes on the major subject of romantic relationships in the sway of big-city life, and how two people who are perfect for eachother in so many ways can be terrible for eachother in so many others. The film stars Woody Allen as Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton (who won as Oscar for her performance) as the title character. The entire movie is centered around how Annie enlightens Alvy's life for a brief moment, then is driven away by his neuroses and selfishness, and how Alvy learns ultimately from the experience that relationships are a matter of give-and-take: you give the best of yourself and take all the bad parts of the other person in stride. If I'm making this film sound like a pathos-spouting art-film retread, I'm sorry. Because what makes this film alive is how Allen's whipsmart wit and eccentric characteristics color the film. The film is, simply stated, flat-out hysterical. Like the scene where Alvy produces Marshall McLuhan to dismiss a film-buff cineaste snob, or Christopher Walken's small, but hysterical role as Annie's space-cadet brother. Or the scene where Annie and Alvy struggle with a live lobster in the kitchen (later used as a payoff as Alvy tries unsuccessfully to recreate the moment with an uninterested woman interest after the breakup with Annie), and the famous cocaine sneeze. And what about Alvy describing a cockroach as "big as a Buick", Tony Roberts lecturing about his "anti-aging" head-sunroof, and a young Alvy losing all faith in existence in grade school ("If the Universe keeps expanding, one day it's going to break apart-and then where will we be?")? Through it all, however, is the inevitable truth that Annie is just too alive for Alvy-characterized by her yearning for the Los Angeles sun as opposed to Alvy's refusal to leave drab New York. The bittersweet ending has Alvy mining his heartbreak for Broadway success, and meeting Annie for lunch one day. At the end of the get-together, we see, in long shot, Annie and Alvy say their goodbyes at a street corner. As Alvy narrarates, we see Annie, then Alvy leave our sight. But the narraration continues as we look at the empty street corner. The movie ends up as Alvy tells us the "my brother is crazy, he thinks he's a chicken" joke-a humorous anecdote symbolic of his entire relationship conundrum. It's this quiet ending scene that ends "Annie Hall", one of the funniest movies ever made, on a perfect note. The film where Woody showed that he was a master.
It surprises me that this film did not receive very much attention upon its release. It definitely deserved it, because "Enemy at the Gates" is a powerful and intense war film that centers on a type of soldier that rarely gets a full movie devoted to it: the sniper. This film's major accomplishment is that it shows the maddening and awful pressure-filled world of the sniper. Centering around Vassili Zaitsev, a young up-and-coming Russian private who has amazing shooting accuracy, the film not only shows the awfulness of battle and the carnage of war (with the Russians killing their own attempting-to-flee soldiers), but how the media turns Vassili into a hero-even though he is chafing under the constraints of his new role. Thus, "Enemy at the Gates" is simultaneously an action-packed war drama and a grim media satire. The peformances are high-quality, with Jude Law as Vassili, Joseph Fiennes as his tormented friend Danilov, and Rachel Weisz as Tania Chernova, the woman who tears the two apart. Also, Bob Hoskins is coarse and humorous as Nikita Khrushkev, while Gabriel Thomson gives an excellent portrayal as Sacha Filipov, the Russian boy who attempts to play both sides against eachother-but learns that one does not mess with the Nazis as easily as one would like to. The standout, however, is the incomparable Ed Harris as Major Konig, a master Nazi sniper who the Germans bring in to take out Vassili. Harris' performance is one of his lesser-known roles, but it shows his mastery of understatement. In fact, it is his character's very emotionlessness that makes him all the more frightening. There are amazing battle sequences (the early Russian vs. German, where the Russians are basically mowed down, is heartbreaking in its futility, as there is a packet of ammo and a gun for every two soldiers), and the final moments between Konig and Vassili show Law and Harris at the top of their game (the quiet physical statement Harris makes at the end is a perfect representation of his character). Also, the love story is as heartfelt as it is desperate. Many comments say this section of the movie was "clumsy" and "unnecessary". I disagree, I feel that the attraction between Tania and Vassili is beautiful, while Fiennes is perfect in expressing the pain-filled jealousy of Danilov. These important relationships are what leads up the final shocking moments-without the love story, the film loses much of its power. Truly, "Enemy at the Gates" is a worthy film-at least better than "Windtalkers".
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