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There was a time in TV when the mini-series was king. They were great prestige products for the networks who, risking immense financial expenditure, hoped to create a cinematic masterpiece on a small screen.
SHOGUN may be the ultimate expression of this neglected TV format. Based on James Clavell's sweeping epic novel of the same name, it succeeds fully in transporting the viewer to another time and place. Through John Blackthorne's eyes (Richard Chamberlain in a now iconic performance, blending moments of delightful scenery chewing with moments of genuine emotion and subtlety), we become ever more involved in the political dealings of the Japanese nobility and the mixed motives of the Jesuits.
One of the great triumphs of SHOGUN is to ensnare the viewer despite long segments in Japanese with no subtitles. The filmmakers were trying to tell the story through Blackthorne's eyes and save for a few moments of narration explaining the dialog, we are left to slowly comprehend the action at the same pace as Blackthorne. It's a device which works wonderfully well, leaving the viewer to figure out what's going on through context and character.
In addition to Chamberlain, SHOGUN is replete with glorious performances. Toshiro Mifune's Toranaga, a Japanese nobleman with grand political designs, possesses great power and yet Mifune's performance is also very nuanced. Toranaga is a man who's mind is always trying to figure three steps ahead and we see this aspect of Toranaga's personality in Mifune's work- a considerable feat considering his dialog is exclusively in Japanese and without subtitles.
Yoko Shimada plays Mariko with a captivating beauty and ethereal grace. Becoming Blackthorne's interpreter and love interest, we cannot take our eyes off of her. Her performance is made doubly impressive by the fact that Ms. Shimada spoke no English and had to be told what her lines met with great care.
Additionally, John-Rhys Davies gives a wonderfully bravura turn as Rodrigues and Damien Thomas gives his Father Alvito real depth and dignity.
SHOGUN does show its age. The quality of the video image does have a bit of that TV glow to it and Maurice Jarre's score, seeming so lush back in 1980, sounds as if it were recorded by a very small third-rate band in a backwater recording studio- it reeks of TV. Still, these are comparatively minor quibbles to an otherwise completely engrossing epic. SHOGUN succeeds mightily in taking the viewer into a strange land filled with wonder and intrigue. By the end, it's a land you aren't ready to leave- perhaps the ultimate compliment for any film.
It's OK to be a STAR WARS fan again.
For several years now, it's been a rather uneasy proposition to be known as a STAR WARS fan. First, we had to put up with the great embarrassment of the clownish Jar Jar and the gut wrenching "acting" from the muppet known as Jake Lloyd in PHANTOM MENACE. Then came the laughably stilted dialog and the clumsily told love story from ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Fans far and wide were wondering what George Lucas had done to their beloved STAR WARS franchise! Something that once was so rollicking and without peer was being transformed into kiddie-pandering, muppet populated, CGI over-loaded dreck!
Mr. Lucas, all is forgiven. Welcome back. REVENGE OF THE SITH is the prequel installment we've been hoping for all along. Gone is the overly wooden acting and the ridiculously petrified dialog. In there place is a logical and believable storyline. Anakin's transformation is inexorably sensible. It is natural and not forced into shape by wooden dialog. Scenes between Anakin and Padme, are heartfelt and honest- a far cry from their nearly unwatchable scenes in ATTACK OF THE CLONES.
The same can be said of scenes between Anakin and Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor is legitimately great in this film. He gives Kenobi real depth and the viewer thoroughly believes that he grows up to become Alec Guiness). There exists a real bond of deep feeling the viewer can feel between master and apprentice thus making Anakin's fate all the more tragic, as he slowly becomes more and more entangled in Palpatine's (Ian McDiarmid, in a joyfully malevolent turn) web of deception and evil.
Visuals have never been an issue in the prequel films and this is most certainly the case with REVENGE OF THE SITH. The opening sequence is a jaw-dropping collage of ships in movement, dazzling colors, and frenetic combat. Additionally, the technology used to create Yoda seems to have grown exponentially over the already impressive wizardry used to animate Yoda in CLONES. Front to back, the vistas Lucas shows us are entirely believable and staggering joys to behold.
George Lucas goes right for the jugular in this film (the PG-13 rating is well earned! Parents be advised!!). This is a very well-told story of a fall from grace told in an unflinching manner. And yet, the hope for the future is so firmly in place as this film rolls to an end, a tear will roll down your cheek if you've lived with this series of films as long as I have. STAR WARS is back. It's cool to be a fan again.
The Nomi Song (2004)
Very good chronicle of its time.
Klaus Nomi was certainly an interesting character. Possessing a unique look and a phenomenal voice, he seemed poised for a measure of stardom during the early 1980s. Alas, Nomi was to be one of the first people of note to be struck down by AIDS.
This documentary does a very credible job of not only giving us a glimpse into Klaus Nomi, but also giving us a look into the world of the "New Wave" in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is replete with footage of Nomi in performance, showing off his truly bizarre look and his unbelievable singing voice (Nomi's performance of "The Cold Song," an arrangement of a piece by Henry Purcell, is one of the most beautifully haunting pieces of music I've ever heard).
Andrew Horn does a very good job of interspersing interview footage and performance footage. He does, however, misstep in a couple of areas. The use of 1950s Sci-fi footage, used to augment Nomi's ruse of being from outer space, is overdone. Horn apparently feels the need to hammer this motif into the ground. More unusual is the use of paper mache cut-outs used to represent Nomi's aunt, seen as we hear her many comments throughout the film. It is a device as obscure in its intent as it is distracting and annoying in its effect.
Overall, this is a good documentary with a pervasive sadness. We lost an amazing voice before it could be heard by the world. It is a well done portrait of a unique character, a colossal talent, and at heart, a lonely man with a sweet, sweet soul.
Taut thriller led by Cruise's excellent work.
For the better part of his career, Tom Cruise has played the All-American good guy. Gleaming eyed and bushy tailed, Cruise has played the roll of the hero in many films and is certainly the richer for it.
Something happened along the way, though. Cruise wanted to be considered a legitimate actor, rather than merely a "movie star." Therefore, we've seen him go against type, successfully (MAGNOLIA), and not so much (THE LAST SAMURAI). It's as if Cruise is the neglected kid in the back of the classroom who knows all of the answers but is never called upon, and therefore will go to desperate ends for attention. "Oh, Oh!! Pick me!!! Pick me!!!"
For me, Cruise hit it this time. His character in COLLATERAL is a menacing study in coldness. It is a thoroughly believable depiction of an utterly ruthless hit-man. It seems, finally, Cruise is actually BAD, rather than merely acting bad. He disdains his usual tricks in favor of a simple and very real performance.
Let us not forget Jamie Foxx. His character's transformation into a hero is rendered all the more effective by how wonderfully Foxx captures his character's initial impotence and bewilderment. It's a wonderfully effective, energetic, and yet very subtle performance.
Special kudos to Michael Mann. He has a very interesting eye when it comes to capturing the city of Los Angeles on film. His vision of L.A. in this film is one of unease and uncertainty, hardly the usual glitz and glamor treatment. This work is always compelling to the eye and paced to keep the action moving ever forward. Each scene has its own logic, contributing to the overall whole. This is first rate film-making.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Missed greatness by about a half an octave.
There is so much to like about PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. It looks breathtaking- both in its costuming and overall design, the music is given the most wonderfully vigorous and dazzling orchestrations one can ever hope to hear, and most of the young stars of this film deliver the goods in fine fashion. The problem, however, is that the film is not called COSTUMES OF THE OPERA or SET OF THE OPERA or even ORCHESTRATIONS OF THE OPERA. It's called PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and that's where the problem, alas, with this version glares brightest.
Gerard Butler simply doesn't cut it vocally. He looks good, he wears the mask well, but the poor man can't sing a lick. There were ever so brief moments where he managed to hit a pleasing note, only to lose it in a sea of raspy, unsustained noise. We must believe that the Phantom can mesmerize, bedazzle, and seduce with the beautiful intoxication of his singing voice. Sadly, Butler fails utterly in this regard. If an actor is to spend 3/4 of a piece with his face covered, he'd better be able to move us with the voice.
A larger problem is that at no point, did this reviewer feel any sympathy for the Phantom. This is the central challenge of this piece, on stage or screen. Yes, the Phantom is a bully and a murderer. However, we MUST be made to feel some sort of sympathy or empathy with this character. It is the only way the ending, with Christine choosing Raoul and finally being the woman who recognizes the Phantom's humanity, will be effective. Many of Butler's readings come off as downright petulant- hardly the tone to strike to inspire any feelings for the Phantom.
The rest of the cast does quite well. Emmy Rossum's beautiful fragility and sharp voice make for a fine Christine, Patrick Wilson is suitably gallant and vapid as Raoul, and Miranda Richardson is a wonderfully mysterious Madame Giry. However the Phantom must be the emotional and musical core of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. We must weep for his fate, for his unrecognized genius, and most of all, for his unrequited passion for love. This voiceless Phantom simply can't deliver these goods.
Oh, so close!
What's not to like about this film? It's compelling, centering on a great political struggle and the unmasking of a galactic conspiracy. It looks terrific, with very good effects and imagery. There's plenty of action with great light sabre duels, aerial dog-fights, and a huge land battle. It even has the poignant blossoming of young love. What else could you want?
Answer: A better script, more believable dialog, and (sadly) a different director. The performances given by most of the cast of EPISODE II are so wooden, so stilted, they significantly detract from the enjoyment of the film. The "fireplace scene," for example, between Anakin and Amidala is comically bad. One cannot help wonder that perhaps with a different script and a different director, the entire love story angle of EPISODE II might have had more realism and thus, more emotional impact.
It seems as George Lucas becomes more adept at creating incredible imaginary vistas and creatures, he becomes less skillful at handling real actors and producing real moments from them. Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are no hacks. They've been incredible in other films. And yet, give them a George Lucas script and George Lucas direction and they turn into pieces of lumber. Sad.
EPISODE II has much going for it. With little more life in the script, we may be talking about one of the best of the STAR WARS series. Alas, it was not to be. This isn't a terrible film, in fact if you get past the aforementioned flaws, it's quite a yarn. Still, the viewer is left with a gnawing sense of what might have been.
The Sting (1973)
A complete winner!
An expertly crafted piece of entertainment-from the Newman and Redford chemistry, the wonderful work of a great supporting cast, and Scott Joplin's rags-THE STING absolutely ripples with charm. For me, I never tire of watching Newman, Redford, and company weave their tale and construct their artiface in order to snare Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). This movie provides smiles galore from beginning to end.
THE STING may not be the most sophisticated or important piece of filmmaking ever but who cares? Films need not always be THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, THE THIRD MAN, or CHINATOWN in order to be worthy of your time.
As for Scott Joplin's music, it was an absolute perfect choice for this film. Even though Joplin's music was popular about 20 years prior to the Great Depression (when THE STING is set), it nonetheless succeeds mightily in capturing the feel of hope and melancholy we see during the era of the Depression and also seen within these characters.
Wonderful fun. 9/10.
Take the 3 most pivotal days in a nation's history-three days on which the fate of two peoples were held in the balance. Throw in a colossal struggle involving tens of thousands of soldiers. Add a host of powerful personalities who commanded each of the armies. Top it all off with chaos, blood, sacrifice, and honor. Add that all together and you should get an incredible movie, right?
Uh, wrong. The makers of GETTYSBURG, so concerned with capturing historical accuracy, ignored competent storytelling and gave us this ponderous monstrosity. I don't think many filmgoers actually mind extremely long movies, provided they are GOOD! This film labors between battle scenes with all of the energy of a 3 toed sloth.
Unfortunately, the even battle sequences themselves don't make everything about this film worthwhile. There are virtually no large panoramic shots of the battlefield to give the viewer any kind of sense of scale. We've read for years about the grandeur, for example, of Pickett's charge. However, we only see them marching forward in small groups. You never get to see the whole of the Confederate line move forward. This lack of scale contributes to GETTYSBURG feeling very much like a TV Movie of the Week.
Much was made about how wonderful it was to use actual Civil War re-enactors for GETTYSBURG's battle sequence. Unfortunately, that's exactly what they look like. Everybody's uniforms are nice and clean and all of their equipment looks shiny and new. This hardly captures the gritty and fetid reality of combat during this war.
I wish that better film makers with a better script would try to make a film on this battle. This subject matter cries out for it.