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Señorita Justice (2004)
Just what the doctor ordered
It had been a good, long time since me and my high school buddies sat down to a righteously awful straight-to-video flick. This confused mess fit the bill and then some.
Try to picture a sort of Pam Grier-type exploitation movie but with Cuban Americans and production values that make you wonder if they just strung three episodes of an ethnic soap opera together, and you have some idea what this is like.
With dozens of goofy montages and instances of recycled footage, it has to have more padding than any 80 minute movie I've ever seen. The action sequences are edited badly (tons of dissolves a la "John Carpenter's Vampires"), choreographed worse (looks like they got the guy that did "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers"), and performed horrendously. The ladies are gorgeous, the guys are cheesy and sleazy--pretty much all the prerequisites are met for a raucous evening in front of the tube with friends and beer. Lots of beer. Check it out!
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
About as good as remakes get
I recently subjected "The Magnificent Seven" to just about the toughest test imaginable--I watched it just a few days after "Seven Samurai." And while I'm not going to pretend it's on par with Kurosawa's astounding masterpiece, I have to tip my hat to Hollywood on this one: it's good, DAMN good, among the best American Westerns.
The focus of the screenplay is more on post-Bogart-pre-Eastwood cool banter than the gradual, taciturn character development of "Seven Samurai," but that doesn't mean that the film doesn't have a heart. Considering it clocks in at barely over two hours (compared to the marathonic three and a half of "Samurai"), it actually does a fantastic and very economical job of fleshing out its memorable cast of characters.
One particularly wonderful scene that stuck in my memory from the first time I saw the film ten years ago is the one where Lee (Robert Vaughn), drunk in the middle of the night, confesses his frailties and fear to two of the farmers. The scene (along with the general story of these down-and-out heroes) was groundbreaking in that it began the deconstruction and deromanticization of the Western hero which would be brought to fruition in Sergio Leone's unparalleled spaghetti Westerns.
The star-studded cast wouldn't hold up doing Shakespeare, but they're ideal in this gunslinging, cool-talking tough-guy adventure. As if a lineup of heroes that included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn wasn't enough, Eli Wallach steals the show as the Mexican bandit chief, a worthy precursor to his classic role "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." If the screenplay has a major flaw, it's that his character isn't featured more.
The score is, of course, one of the all-time classics. And while not as alive visually as the Japanese film that inspired it or the Italian Westerns it influenced, it's still mighty fine to look at, and the gunfights don't disappoint.
The pieces add up to one of the great entertaining films of all time, which still manages to be moving and morally aware despite its Hollywoodization of Kurosawa's vision.
Shichinin no samurai (1954)
Stunning--a movie to end all movies
"Seven Samurai" is not properly an epic. It does not cover any great distances (perhaps a few dozen miles, at most), or stretches of time (maybe a month), and its climactic battle features perhaps sixty to eighty people--it's a positively modest production when compared with other three-hour affairs such as, say, "Gone with the Wind" or "Spartacus."
But there is one dimension, at least, in which Akira Kurosawa's opus approaches the epic scope: it leaves no corner of the human spirit or the human condition unexplored. The film is, simply, what it is to be human, in its entirety: courage, fear, love, hate, lust, cruelty, kindness, cameraderie, greed, selflessness, sorrow, laughter. This tale of farmers, bandits and warriors is really a story about all of us--the downtrodden, the wicked and the noble.
Very, very rarely, if ever, has a film had such a complete, unerring, and successful devotion to the reality of its characters. And what characters they are--particularly Toshiro Mifune's unforgettable noble savage, Kikuchiyo, and Takashi Shimura's wise and gentle leader, Kambei.
I almost feel as if there's nothing to say--deeply insightful, profoundly moving, beautifully made, unfailingly entertaining even with it's 200+ minute running time--a magnificent film, a PERFECT film, perhaps the greatest ever made.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
A different kind of war movie
For the first couple acts of "From Here to Eternity," you may wonder, justifiably, what the film is getting at. We all know the planes are on the way, but the film takes its time detailing the alternate drudgery and revelry of Army life in peacetime Hawaii. Company politics, love affairs, drunkenness, grudges--it's not that it's boring, because it's actually pretty effective drama. But it does seem petty given the impending disaster. I kept returning to the same thought--"This is very good, but not all-time great."
Ultimately, though, the point becomes clear. This is not a story about war at all, but about people. It does not treat Pearl Harbor as a monolithic tragedy, but rather a myriad of little individual tragedies, forgotten by history but no less significant.
The time spent on character development pays off. The film's final act is deeply moving, and communicates a profound and lasting statement about war. I was wrong--it IS an all-time great film, and one of the best examples of how a film can be more than the sum of its parts.
It's well-documented, also, that this is one of the great casts of all time.
Oscar nominees Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster are superb in their leading roles as apparent opposites--the rebel and the good soldier--who turn out to be kindred spirits. The young and gangly Frank Sinatra is funny and bursting with energetic charisma in his Oscar-winning character role, and Donna Reed (another Oscar-winner) shows us some stunning moments of desperation and passion. Did I mention Deborah Kerr and Ernest Borgnine?
Highly recommended--9 out of 10.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
It's hard to call to mind a comedy as massive in scope as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," because there aren't any. Even "Dr. Strangelove," where the fate of the world hangs in the balance and several plot lines unfold, seems restrained compared to this sprawling but light-hearted showbiz extravaganza.
Starring everyone, featuring everything, unfolding more or less in real time, and clocking in at an absurdly overlong 161 minutes in the restored version (still short of the incomprehensible 188-minute original cut), "IAMMMMW" is Hollywood at its most...well...Hollywood. It makes "Cannonball Run" look like "Annie Hall."
But Hollywood excess from 1963 tastes a lot sweeter and more wholesome than Hollywood excess from today, and it's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying the razor-sharp comic performances (especially from Ethel Merman), the spectacular chase/race sequences, the ditzy slapstick, and the general sense of goofiness.
It's so entertaining I'd probably vote it an 8 if it were, say, two or two-and-a-quarter hours. But the sheer length causes it to drag heavily for a while after the intermission (YES! INTERMISSION! IN A COMEDY!) before it picks up for the climax, bringing it down to a strong 7 (7.5, maybe?). Whatever you want to grade it, it's an absolute must-see.
Unremarkable, shallow epic
Why this passable but completely forgettable film has apparently garnered a reputation as a classic in the last decade is beyond me. There's really not much to write home about here.
There's no complexity or levels or anything, just good vs. evil, fight fight fight, freedom freedom freedom. Gibson, of course, is as limited an actor as he's ever been. His corny pre-battle speeches have become wildly popular, to the point where you might be fooled into thinking they constitute great moments in cinema, but in actuality they're somewhere above Bill Pullman in "Independence Day" and below Al Pacino in "Any Given Sunday" on the scale of dramatic pep talks. And in case you're wondering, no, that's not a prestigious slot to be in.
I'm not trying to say it's unwatchable like "The Patriot" or anything--it's OK. Probably about as good as, say, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." But I don't think anyone who's seen a real epic with real actors would consider it anything special. This is a classic example of how the Oscars can inflate the reputation of undeserving movies in weak years (see also, "Gladiator, The").
A triumph of naturalism
Holding a mirror up to the world is not the primary mission of a film. Indeed, for the vast majority of movies, the goal is not reality at all, but heightened reality, or a focus on some aspect of reality. When it comes to film, the majority of stories are best told this way.
But there are some stories that are best told in as real and natural a manner as possible. The true story of New York cop Frank Serpico's battle against the corruption that permeated the NYPD in the late '60s and early '70s is just such a story.
Everything about "Serpico" feels 100% real and authentic. The superb naturalistic acting, the lifelike dialogue, the frank and unstylized violence, the unobtrusive direction, the lack of flashy edits or music. Perhaps most challenging of all for the seasoned American moviegoer is the fact that the story unfolds naturally, too. It moves gradually and meanders often. Characters hesitate, are indecisive and sometimes don't do what we expect. And the movie moves at their pace and in their direction--not that of a director, screenwriter, or audience. Just like real life.
So, while slow and less than impactful at points, "Serpico" is as honest and complete a character study as you're ever likely to come across--tailor-made for an actor's actor like Pacino, whose range, presence, and penchant for nuance has never been better utilized. If you want a movie that makes you feel like you were there at a particular time and place with a particular person, "Serpico" is it.
It also bears mentioning that Pacino-as-Serpico is just about the coolest-looking protagonist in film history. Might be my Halloween costume this year...
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
So stale it crumbles
You know that moment in every action or horror movie when the baddie is just about to kill, maim, bite, or otherwise put the hurt on a sympathetic character, when another, unseen sympathetic character shoots/stabs/whatevers the baddie in JUST the nick of time? "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" is an entire film based around just repeating that moment again and again and again. Each time, the director (who's somehow less famous and reputable than Paul W.S. Anderson, if that's conceivable) honestly seems to expect us to react to it, which borders on insulting. While it's not the worst movie of the year ("Day After Tomorrow" and "AvP" have it beat, while "Chronicles of Riddick" has it just about even), it's easily the most repetitive, predictable and stale--pretty much every shot or sequence you see is blatantly ripped off from some other movie.
If there is a redeeming quality to this movie, it's the nice assortment of surprisingly subtle visual references to the classic "Resident Evil 2" video game, on which it is loosely based. Unfortunately, the movie seems to have abandoned that great game's penchant for eerie atmospheric thrills in favor of constant, ridiculous action. Making an action movie out of "Resident Evil 2," a game firmly routed in the cinematic traditions of horror, is akin to making a horror movie out of "Virtua Fighter"--it's just the wrong idea.
Though they may draw similar audiences, horror and action actually aren't all that compatible, and nothing drives that point home like sitting through this movie. It sacrifices scares for explosions, atmosphere for flashy edits, and human fear for superhuman kung fu heroics. The constant use of the aforementioned just-in-time device is an attempt to artificially inject some real fear and tension, but it fails because of its predictability.
I'd compare this to the first "Resident Evil" film if I could remember anything about it besides Milla's brief nudity. This film, thankfully, seems destined to fade from memory just as quickly--leaving only fleeting glimpse of Milla's goodies behind.
Racket Girls (1951)
Magnificent, just magnificent
There couldn't be more perfect MST3K fodder if Mike and the Bots directed it themselves. Lame and directionless plot, unapologetic and endless reuse of footage, molasses-in-January pacing, production values that would make Roger Corman wince, gratuitous sexuality from intensely unsexy women, ultra-doofy characters...oh yeah, and it's a SPECIAL INTEREST PICTURE ABOUT WOMEN'S WRESTLING IN THE FIFTIES.
Well, at least it starts that way. You will catch nary a glimpse of dull-witted, mammoth-chested "protagonist" (the movie doesn't really have one) wrestler Peaches in the closing act, as the screenplay (like a rambling, senile old man) has decided to focus its attention on the sleazy promoter and his downfall at the hands of a gangster scintillatingly named "Mr. Big." Thus, the film degenerates from campy fiftiesdom into grade-Z noir.
I bestow upon this picture the greatest of all honors--a 1 out of 10. Plenty of schlocky black-and-white pictures get compared to the illustrious Ed Wood's work--this is the rare one that actually merits the comparison. It's pure gold.
Reality Bites (1994)
Captures the era, but disappoints mightily
"Reality Bites" is one of the more unique viewing experiences I have had recently (just watching it for the first time yesterday, ten years after its release--it was one of those movies I was always just going to get around to seeing, and incredibly this took me a decade). I say unique because, while disappointment is certainly no stranger to the American film fan, it's a rare thing indeed when that disappointment extends to a sense of betrayal, even pain.
The film starts out loaded with promise. Snarky Gen-X college buddies Lelaina (Winona Ryder), Troy (Ethan Hawke), Vickie (Janeane Garafalo) and Sammy (Steve Zahn) have just graduated, hate their jobs, and are looking for direction in the directionless mid-'90s. Lelaina has started a documentary about the four of them in hopes of finding answers that way. Then she causes a stranger she initially mistakes for a yuppy (Michael, played by director Ben Stiller) to have a car accident, which leads to a sweet and very authentic romance. The whole film feels supremely natural from the get-go. The performances and characters are solid (aside from token gay buddy Sammy, who is a complete and utter tack-on) and the attitudes capture the era as well as the clothes and music.
Then, much to my chagrin, we are betrayed by Stiller and screenwriter Helen Childress on several fronts.
First, the movie almost abruptly stops being about youth and self-discovery and turns into a tired love-triangle story with the loathesome Troy making up the other leg of the tripod with Lelaina and Michael. Sure, I get it, the two of them represent the choices in life and direction that Lelaina must face. But I don't want these characters reduced to a cheap metaphor, especially when the metaphor crowds out a theme that could have been really meaningful to anyone who was young in the '90s. We never had our "Five Easy Pieces," sadly.
Secondly, and most grievously, Lelaina and the film choose terribly wrong. They choose Troy. And in doing so, "Reality Bites" makes the same sad mistakes that its generation did. It mistakes a goatee and a lock of hair over the eye for sincerity. It prizes immaturity, ego, pretension, self-absorption, inertia and tantrums over the honesty and humility of Michael. It's almost laughable when the massively phony Troy tells Lelaina, "I'm the only real thing you have." There's nothing real about Troy. There was nothing real about the legions of self-obsessed a**holes he represented.
Because Troy is so unlikable, the movie makes the unforgivably cheap move of killing off his unseen father about ten minutes from the end. This is supposed lend this vile human being some kind of worth in our eyes, I guess, but I didn't buy it for an instant. The orphan routine comes off as just another drama-queen ploy (successful, of course) to worm his way into Lelaina's pants. What really scares and even sickens me is that female viewers probably ACTUALLY SWOONED when Hawke delivered those maudlin final lines to Ryder--falling for the seduction of the worst aspects of that era...if this were an '80s movie, choosing Troy would be the equivalent of choosing the rich, yuppy jock.
Then, the worst betrayal of all, the movie completely abandons Michael, easily the best character (certainly the best person) in the film. He's not worth an ending, you see, because he has a clean-looking haircut and doesn't play acoustic guitar. Someone please give me a stiff drink so I can forget about this ending.
I'm angry enough to give this film a 3, but I figure anything that evokes so much feeling in me, even for the wrong reasons, has to be worth at least a 5. Great performances (Ryder, Garafalo and Stiller), superb and natural direction, some nice dialogue, and an overall sense of authenticity push it to a 6. But I'm hard-pressed to go beyond that for a movie that so completely and utterly fails to "get it," and in the process loses the opportunity to be a landmark film for my generation.
If you want something that actually deals with mid-'90s ennui in an unflinching manner and offers real insight, rent 1994's other slacker opus, "Clerks."