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Holy Smoke (1999)
I've seen two movies in my life that were worse than this, and one of them was a porn.
MINOR SPOILERS HEREIN
I was forced to watch this movie for my Media Criticism and Theory Class. The film looked promising, a great director, two great lead actors who I respect immensely, and an interesting subject matter. The film quickly went downhill. The entire film is stylistically and structurally disjointed. The director didn't seem to know if she wanted to make the film realistic or not, so she just sort of goes into non-sequitor fantasy sequences at random points in the film, most of which just end up looking silly in an otherwise realistic looking film. The whole thing with Ruth's running off and joining a cult would have created more sympathy for her if there was ever any actual explanation as to what the cult was doing or proof that they were actually dangerous. This was never proved and, in fact, the entire religion actually comes off looking legitimate, especially with the fantasy shot in which the guru touches Ruth's forehead and a third eye opens up in her forehead, which suggests that this guru actually does have spiritual powers, which contradicts the rest of the film.
Not that this matters, however, as halfway through the film, the writers decided that the story was no longer about the cult and just made it about this weird sexual relationship between a psychiatrist and his client. Seeing Kate Winslet naked seems to be everyone's favorite part of this film but, as wonderful as that is, it comes out of nowhere and is made ludicrous and disgusting by the fact that she is peeing on herself. And while seeing Harvey Keitel running around in the deserts of Australia wearing a little red dress is certainly entertaining, I really think that, at that point, the audience is laughing AT the film, not with it.
Don't believe these people who try to tell you that this movie is "over some people's heads". These are the same people who think that if anything is weird or doesn't make sense, then it has some deeper meaning that they're missing, so they better pretend to see it so that they look smart. You know, the "Emperor's New Clothes" kind of people. This movie is crap. The characters are unbelievable, the dialogue is pretentious and annoyingly pseudo intellectual, the imagery lacks any form of subtlety and, aside from a few laughs and some good performances from Keitel and Winslet, there are no redeeming qualities to this film.
1 out of 10
Birds of Prey (2002)
Doomed from the Start
Great performances, interesting style (even if it copies every comic book adaptation and makes it FAR more cartoonish than it needs to be), but there was no chance this was ever going to succeed as a TV series. Non-comic book fans aren't likely to be interested in something like this, and comic book fans would naturally feel betrayed since this could not be a more inaccurate adaptation. From the idea of Huntress being Batman and Catwoman's daughter (accurate, but was erased from the timeline long ago), to Dinah being a young girl, to Dinah having the wrong meta-human powers, to the Huntress having ANY metahuman powers at all, or the absolutely ABSURD idea that Batman would ever abandon his city, comic book fans naturally felt betrayed.
Warner Brothers, next time you want to base a television show on a comic book, feel free to take some liberties with the material, but don't violate the source material like a drunk teenager at a frat party.
Buck Naked Arson (2001)
Well, it's not exactly Citizen Kane, but it's a good way to spend an hour and a half.
Starts out with a teenage boy running around naked in the woods in the midst of a forest fire. An overzealous forest ranger, who loses his big pay bonus and vacation because of the fire in his forest is determined to find out which of the four teens did it and send the right one to jail. In his interrogation, the full story of the night comes out about these kids' graduation night and the relationships between them.
Interesting concept for a film. A very typical story of self realization, love and growing up, but done from a rather different plot set up. The film is very funny, which might disappoint those who looked at the posters and the video case which suggest that this is some sort of horror or action film. Still, despite some misleading advertising, the writing is very funny and realistic. The characters are believable as teenagers, and the conversations actually make sense.
It's also a great film for anyone who grew up on ABC family comedies, as most of the cast seems to have been pulled from those old shows. I rented the movie because I was curious to see a movie from Rider Strong, former co-star from the ABC show Boy Meets World. I was not aware, however, that the film also featured Rider's older brother Shiloh (seriously, who names their kids Rider and Shiloh?), William Russ, the father from Boy Meets World, and Christine Lakin from Step by Step. These actors prove that they are capable of more than just the cheesy melodrama of the sitcoms they grew up on. Granted, there were quite a few melodramatic scenes in this film, but they still showed that they could shine in something more mature and adult. I personally didn't even recognize Lakin until half way through the film (although this might have had something to do with the fact that I watched her grow up as a tomboy on TV and, in this film, she plays more of a "perfect little princess" type girl).
There are definitely flaws in this film. It does get a little melodramatic, as I've said before, and the camera keeps doing this annoying tilt thing that I'm assuming the director thought would make this look like a crime film or something, but it really just looked dumb. It's certainly not some sort of great cinematic achievement, but it's also not a waste of your time or money. Rent it, watch it, it is certainly a good time.
Bu jian (2003)
What the hell did I just watch?
I just finished watching this movie at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic. Some friends of mine said they had heard good things about it, but then remembered they were thinking of a different film. Still, the film had won awards at three different festivals and also had a decent rating on this site, as well as a favorable review from the one person who commented.
What I'm about to say is not something I say lightly: This was the worst film I have ever seen. I think about half of the people in the theater (the theater was almost full) cleared out before the movie ended. It was slower than anything I've ever seen, and I have seen a great deal of foreign films.
Everything about this film was just horrible. The plot was thin and nearly non-existent, and about 90% of the film was taken up by the woman running around asking where her grandson was, and people asking her the same questions ("Boy or a girl?" "What was he wearing?" "Did you talk to the police?"). I seriously think this was about an hour of the film, all of it exactly the same.
Yet, strangely, I found myself rather intrigued during the entire course of the film. I was intrigued because I was convinced that there is no possible way that anyone could make a film that slow and not be fully aware of what they were doing. I started to think of John Cage's 4'33" and thought that, maybe, it's meant to be the cinematic equivalent of that: just one, huge joke on the film's audience. I'm hoping that's what it was, anyway, or else the director and editor of this film must have been the two most inept human beings in history. There were a few funny moments in the film which captured my interest, but for the most part, the most laughs came at the end of the film as people laughed at the sheer absurdity of the fact that they had just sat through something so unbelievably awful.
I fail to see how this film won so many awards. The way I see it, either the juries at these festivals saw it as a joke as well and appreciated it, or else they figured that a film this boring must have some sort of deeper artistic meaning that they're missing. Either way, this movie is not worth seeing, not even for the humor of how bad it is, whether that was intended or not.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Boring Film Pays Off in the End...Sort of
I rented this film because it was the first English speaking film from the beautiful and amazing French actress Audrey Tautou. For maybe the first half of the film or so, I thought it was slightly intriguing, but mostly boring. Tautou, while putting in an excellent performance as usual--playing a Turkish immigrant who poses as Italian, no less--really was not the star of this film as the ads suggested. She was really the second billed actress, but the film was advertised with her instead of the star, Chjwetel Ejiofor, due to Tautou's film, Amelie, possibly one of the most well known French films in the United States. (Actually, it's probably the ONLY remotely well known French film in the United States.)
Chjwetel Ejiofor put in an excellent performance as well. And the bulk of the film had me bored to tears. However, towards the end, the overall concept behind the film started to emerge and I became intrigued. The concept is a bit of a secret, so I won't spoil it for you, but I will tell you that it is a creative way to demonstrate the plight of illegal immigrants. The ending, additionally, created a lot more sympathy for the characters, particularly Tautou's character.
Still, the ending and the superb acting were not enough to make up for the rest of the film which was painfully boring. Perhaps my opinion will change on further viewings. But really, Tautou's endearing performance was about the only thing that kept any of my attention throughout the film.
The Good Girl (2002)
Brilliant Performances Can't Save Dull, Unoriginal Film
I rented this film mainly because I'm a big fan of Jake Gyllenhaal and was quite impressed with his performance in Donnie Darko, and even his performance in October Sky. I'm glad to say that his performance was excellent as always, cementing in my mind the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal will go down in history someday as one of the truly great actors in film history. The surprise was in Jennifer Anniston who's performance on the hit TV show "Friends" has never been very impressive. She did an excellent job in this film and I was glad to see she has some range.
The problem in the film is pointed out by Anniston's character herself at one point while lying in bed with Gyllenhaal: "I wish someone would write a story about me. Don't know who would read it, though." That's exactly it, nobody wants to hear this story.
You know why? It's been done to death. From the first moments of this film, it becomes painfully obvious that this is another one of those trapped-in-a-dead-end-life-and-trying-desperately-to- find-a-way-out kind of movies. This had been done before, and done much better, in films like The Man Who Wasn't There or Clerks, not to mention the novel which this film blatantly references, Catcher in the Rye. So if you're going to do something like this again, you need to find something original and creative to do with it. This film does not. There are a few very funny moments, particularly with the character Cheryl, and at almost exactly the 1 hour mark of the film something happens which I thought would make for an interesting twist to the film, but it didn't pan out the way I thought it would.
Afterwards, I figured out that this director had worked on such brilliant television series as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide and Six Feet Under. It's unfortunate that he was involved with such a mediocre piece of film. It's interesting to see it for Anniston and Gyllenhaal's performance, but don't force yourself to sit through the entire film. It does not pay off at the end.
Human Nature (2001)
Good, Not Great
Those of you reading the comments for this film might be confused at the fact that the comments seem to be so bipolar. Everyone seems to either love or hate this film and few people seem to be inbetween. I can see why, since the material in and of itself is the sort of thing that would draw a lot of conflicting opinions, and the style of the film is odd, which will enrage some and attract others. Personally, I found this controversy of opinions to be compelling, and I rented the film. Partially because of the comments on this board, but mostly because I simply adored Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is the latest and only other film to be written by the incredible Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry.
Here's my opinion, perhaps the only non-polarized one on the board: I felt that it was good, but not great. Charlie Kaufman has certainly written far better scripts in his career, and Michel Gondry did a far better job on Eternal Sunshine as well as his music video work. The tone of the film was goofy, which made sense artistically, but wasn't really goofy enough to grab my attention. On top of that, the film does break tone from time to time, getting a little too over the top (although, it is over the top from the beginning, which works, but it seems to exceed its own limits at times). Overall, it's some pretty solid writing and directing, but what's missing is anything to make this film really stick out as special.
However, what I find particularly impressive about this film is that, when watching this AND Eternal Sunshine, you can really see the incredible range that Michel Gondry has (as does Kaufman, but I was already aware of that from his other works). Eternal Sunshine and Human Nature are two of very few feature films that Gondry has directed, and they are incredibly different films. Eternal Sunshine maintains a very realistic tone throughout the film, while Human Nature's tone is more cartoonish (which is ironic since Eternal Sunshine contains more fantastic elements). Eternal Sunshine has a somewhat gritty feel to it (or as much of one as a comedy can have) and, visually, focuses on a specific color scheme and low-key lighting. Human Nature is far more evenly lit and doesn't seem to have much of a specific color scheme. Yet, in both films, he manages to execute his decisions well (though far better in Eternal Sunshine).
Human Nature is not the greatest film in the world, but it is worth it to see the work of a great and talented director.
Jersey Girl (2004)
What has always been remarkable about writer/director Kevin Smith has been the originality of his artistic voice in everything he's done
What has always been remarkable about writer/director Kevin Smith has been the originality of his artistic voice in everything he's done. In his debut, Clerks, he broke conventions by creating a low key, dialogue based, witty comedy that pushed the standards of decency. In Chasing Amy, he created an intelligent and deeply personal romantic comedy that strays far away from all the conventions of the genre. And in Dogma, he created a fun, action adventure comedy that says everything that you've ever thought about Catholicism and religion but were too afraid to say. Even Mallrats and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, while they were simply sophomoric teen comedies, had a certain originality to them in that they contained a certain amount of Kevin Smith's personality and succeeded at what they were trying to do, which was to entertain.
Then we have Jersey Girl. Jersey Girl's advertising campaign has made the film out to look like nothing more than a safe and saccharine Hollywood style film. For most of the film, though, we find that it is a bit more than that. The film is certainly less "safe" than the commercials would make it seem (although far more safe than anything he's done before), pushing the envelope of what is acceptable in a film about a young child. Certainly most viewers will be absolutely shocked to see that, unlike in most films, when Ben Affleck is changing his baby, the camera doesn't turn away to hide the grossness of the situation. Likewise, audiences will be surprised to see Affleck and George Carlin freely swearing around Gertrude, the young girl in the film. Additionally, Smith succeeds in injecting a certain amount of character and personality into the film that is completely DIFFERENT from his own, with the colorful additions of the Broadway Musical performance and George Carlin's wonderfully humorous blue-collar character. Even Affleck's performance in this film is one of the best he's given since he's become a big-name, mainstream star.
But where the film becomes too safe is in the ending. With about thirty minutes left in the film, Smith pulls out a plot twist that's straight out of every cheesy, family-oriented sitcom ever produced, leaving little suspense as to how its all going to end. While Chasing Amy showed the potential of taking the stereotyped way out of the story but went in a completely different way at the end, this film falls into a conventional Hollywood plot that is all too familiar and plays it out to the very trite and contrived end.
Smith also tries to make up for the lack of style he's often criticized for by hiring a cinematographer for this film as he has done for his last two films, Dogma and J&SBSB. Lack of a visual style, however, is definitely preferable to the style of this film which is, once again, very Hollywood and unoriginal. There are a few impressive and beautiful shots, but for the most part, there's nothing original in the visual style, leaving the viewer nostalgic for the grainy, black-and-white style of Clerks.
Kevin Smith will probably write off the negative reaction this film receives from his fans as their inability to accept a new direction in his filmmaking. While there certainly are a great deal of fickle Kevin Smith fans who wouldn't have appreciated this film even if it was brilliant, the real reason most of his fans will reject this film will be because it is his weakest work to date. He lured in his faithful followers with the promise of another personal and intelligent look at life through his eyes, but instead delivered up a look at fatherhood through the eyes of conventional plotlines and stereotypes. It's unfortunate that fans will also have to wait sometime before seeing another Kevin Smith film about personal experience since his next two projects are set to be the Fletch prequel and the Green Hornet adaptation. For the last "intelligent" Smith film to be expected for some time, this is certainly a disappointment.
Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
Far Better than I Anticipated (minor spoilers)
Going into Mona Lisa Smile (or I guess I should say that I was dragged in, that would be far more accurate) I anticipated a cliched and trite female oriented film. In fact, the only reason I was willing to go at all was because I think Maggie Gyllenhaal is the best actress out there today. I despise Julia Roberts, I have mixed feelings about Julia Stiles and I've never been a big fan of Kirsten Dunst, so I wasn't expecting great things from this film.
At first the film seemed formulaic. The renegade teacher who stirs things up at a staunchly traditional school, an obvious knock off of "Dead Poets Society", as most people have pointed out. However, the formula was made original in that the ending was realistic. The characters didn't all simply reject the teachings that the school had forced upon them, they took a more realistic approach. And the characters surprised me, they didn't all meet with the destinies that I assumed they would at the beginning of the film.
As far as the performances go, I was surprised by all of the actresses involved. Julia Stiles seemed to put in a promising performance at the beginning of the film, but then her character became more downplayed, despite indications early on that she would be the most central of the four student characters. Maggie Gyllenhaal was brilliant as always. It may not have been comparable to her stellar performance in Secretary, but it was great nonetheless. The truly surprising performance was that of Kirsten Dunst who was absolutely phenomenal. Normally a teen star used only as a box office draw, she was absolutely excellent as the bitch of the group, more or less, who bought into the attitudes that were forced upon the girls of the school. She was also the character who changed the most throughout the course of the film, which she portrayed quite well. Ginnifer Goodwin, an actress I'd never heard of before, was equally talented in her role as Connie. Even Julia Roberts had a few moments of her own, such as the scene in which she launches on a tirade against both the standards of the school and the images presented to women through advertising.
There were a few flaws in the film, most notably the occasional outfit Julia Robert's character is found in which didn't seem to fit the time.
The most glaring problem with the film would seem to be that it was written and directed by men (which would obliterate the opinion of a certain reviewer on this site who claimed that this film "hates men"). Perhaps this particular sentiment should have been expressed by a woman. Nonetheless, the point it makes is an important one, and, although I am a man and can't fully understand the restrictions placed on women myself, it seemed to me that these men managed to capture just the right feel for this film.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
A slick, stylized, glossy, brilliant and beautiful bloodfest!
There are those who can look at this movie and see nothing more than a huge, violent blood fest. While I can see where these people are coming from, the simple fact that they write this off as merely a bloody action film is proof of their total ignorance towards the art of film. Yes, there is a lot of violence in this film and there is a rather weak plotline. However, Tarantino does this intentionally because, in making this film, he decided that he was going to devote all of his attention to one aspect of his filmmaking technique: style.
What people fail to understand is that, artistically, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this if it is done well. Every aspect of this film uses a style so original that it is destined to change filmmaking for years to come. From his separation of the film into chapters, to his integration of Japanese style animation, to his easy transition from black and white to color in the big fight sequence, to the breathtakingly beautiful cinematography, the film plays out like nothing that has ever been seen before on the screen.
::WARNING, VERY MINOR SPOILERS STARTING HERE::
The film follows a stream of consciousness narrative rather than a chronological one. This is a sadly underused device in filmmaking that is strangely much more popular in literature. The fact that we know after only ten minutes of the film that The Bride will successfully kill O-Ren Ishi is reminiscent of such literary works as Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold or even Thornton Wilder's Our Town. And strangely, this knowledge doesn't seem to take away the suspense we feel during The Bride's fight with Ishi and her henchmen/women. This is because of the fact that the desperation of the character's predicament (which somehow is not countered by the character's cocky attitude) is portrayed so well that we feel the desperation ourselves and become worried about the character vicariously, even if The Bride herself doesn't seem as worried as we are.
::SPOILERS STOP HERE::
So why choose to chop the film up and present it in a stream of consciousness format rather than chronologically? Well, one could simply say that it's all about style, but style needs to have a purpose if you're going to do it right. The stream of consciousness style forces us into The Bride's mindset so that we can relate to her more. This becomes a necessity because of the fact that the character is by nature so cold and distant that, no matter how effective Thurman's portrayal of the character may be, the acting alone can't give us the necessary sympathy for the character.
Another claim people have made against this movie is that the brutal violence and the glamorization of it is irresponsible on Tarantino's part. But, as glamorous as the film is in its portrayal of this violence, there is also an element of surrealism in this film, although it's not the surrealism we've come to expect, even in artistic and experimental films. The surrealism is in the exaggeration of certain aspects of the film, most notably the color scheme. The beautifully rich color scheme of this film is strikingly artificial to the point of being ridiculous. The Bride, who is known as the Blonde Killer, rides a yellow motorcycle and dresses in a yellow jumpsuit. This all seems far too convenient to be real. And that's the point. The artificial color scheme gives the film a sort of plastic gloss so that it becomes impossible to take things such as the violence of the movie seriously.
::MINOR SPOILERS RESUME HERE::
There are also several other obvious examples of exaggeration which render the movie unrealistic in the mind of the viewer. The fact that The Bride survived a bullet to her head somehow, a fact which is the basis of the whole film, is utterly ridiculous. The fact that The Bride can somehow bring a samurai sword with her onto a commercial airplane and not raise any suspicion is another glaring example of exaggeration. Because of these exaggerations, the viewer is put into a separate universe with the understanding that none of the events taking place in this film have any bearing on reality whatsoever.
::SPOILERS END HERE::
So, no, Kill Bill is not just another of the mindless, testosterone-driven action films that our culture is constantly bombarded with despite their lack of artistic and intellectual integrity. The film is a masterpiece of visual style from a director who demonstrates that he knows how to carefully craft a film to best convey a sense and a feeling he wishes to get across to his audience. And most of all, we have to understand that this is an extremely experimental film in terms of style. So much so that it will not only shake up the film industry, but will entirely shatter every unwritten rule about the visual and narrative aspects of filmmaking. It is thanks to this film that we will soon see a sudden and massive influx of directors willing to experiment and stretch the limits of visual style thanks to this monumental achievement, this action packed masterpiece, from Quentin Tarantino.