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Worthy technical landmark
Gravity joins the lineup of noteworthy films that have skated by with a thin story on their way to showcasing technical brilliance, and I'd put it in the pantheon with Avatar, Russian Ark, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Rope, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Jazz Singer. Like Avatar, you will need 3D & IMAX to experience the full effect. Unlike Avatar, Gravity contains substance you'll be able to appreciate on any screen.
Much as been made about the technical accuracy (or lack thereof), mostly by the pedantic types who would argue that Mary Poppins really couldn't fly because the umbrella technology wasn't there yet. While I pity them for failing to enjoy this film for what it is (and wonder what they really do enjoy), I do have to concede they have a point. To illustrate I must discuss a key plot point, and insist you to read no further until you've seen the film.
************************ SPOILERS BEGIN *****************************
Several people have ridiculed the use of the "mysterious force" that wound up pulling Kowalski away from Stone. Of course the screenwriters didn't invent a mysterious force, they just wanted Kowalski to make a sacrifice, wanted a final moment between the two, and thought that was the best way to execute it. While watching I politely suspended my disbelief so I could enjoy the film, but it struck me later how they could have done it better.
Imagine instead they are still tethered together when Stone catches her foot in the parachute lines. Kowalski is floating past and sees the tenuous hold she has. Close-up of his face, close-up of Stone's foot.
"I'm going to pull you off," he concludes, and he begins to unbuckle the tether.
"What are you doing?!" Stone asks.
"When this goes taut, I'll pull you off," he explains as he floats past her, just seconds left now.
"No," she insists, "it'll hold, don't!"
"I can't take that chance," he explains, and he unbuckles. We'll never know if his theory was right, but his sacrifice is all the nobler because of it. You can still have the tense moment, you can still have their conversation as he floats away, and you haven't violated any laws of physics.
So it could have been done better. But it remains important not to be one of the pedantic types. Case in point is the scene where Kowalski returns to the Soviet capsule. My thoughts during that scene were "could that really be him? ... she can't survive that decompression. this is a hallucination ... is this a hallucination? could he be back? ... yeah, i knew it was a hallucination." It is an emotional journey the filmmakers want you to take part in, and one you can't enjoy if you spend the whole time rolling your eyes, only to later come out feeling like an idiot.
So relax, Francis, sit back and enjoy a cinematic moment comparable to when people heard their first THX sounder, or the debut of CinemaScope, or when Dorothy opened a door to a world of color. You can't go back to France in 1895 to experience the thrill of L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat and wonder if the train was going to run you over. But Gravity may be the next best thing.
Wrap yourself in conservative goodness!
There's a good reason for the exclamation point in the title of "McLintock!": the entire film is uncomplicated, bold, and unapologetic to the core. This retelling of "The Taming of the Shrew" set in the old west serves mostly as a star vehicle for one of the great screen pairings of all time, John Wayne & Maureen O'Hara. But its main appeal is as a warm, reactionary blanket.
Adherents of this film will undoubtedly cite it as "good, wholesome entertainment" and state "they don't make 'em like they used to." They'd also mock my use of the word "adherents". It's because this movie was designed to appeal to our more conservative values. In McLintock men settle their differences with bare fists, and women secretly thrill over it. Bureaucrats and intellectuals are untrustworthy, because the only good, clean, honest work is done with your hands. Here women need to be paddled to know their place, and they won't respect you until you do. In this town cowards and "fancy boys" don't get the girl, and stereotypes are all in good fun (and true!). For many westerns most of this is implied, but in McLintock! it's the driving theme.
It may seem like I am knocking this movie, but I am really not. It is what it is: a chance to see John Wayne at his best, as an uncomplicated character whose adherence (that word again!) to his convictions sees him through all troubles, be they internal or external. And the entire effort is well-directed and entertaining, regardless of one's social compass. Yet I would remind anyone who feels this movie is "wholesome" that Running Buffalo's "Where's the whiskey?" line, delivered about a dozen times, probably set Native American relations back 100 years. And I would further remind anyone deriding my "political correctness" that McLintock! itself contains one of the most blatant PC moments in film. The only point of the subplot involving the local Comanche tribe is to show John Wayne, an American icon symbolic of our old west heritage, as sympathetic to the Native American cause. And the only point of that is to serve Wayne's legacy a man who built his screen career on fighting Indians and to allay our white conscience.
If McLintock really cared about the Native Americans, he'd give his land back to them and not some national park. And if the filmmakers really cared about them, the actors would have received some kind of screen credit.
In defense of Scrooged
"Scrooged" is a little comedic gem that I rank somewhere between "A Christmas Story" and "Elf" among yuletide movies, and between "Stripes" and "What About Bob?" in the Bill Murray oeuvre. It has suffered commercially because the dark palettes and tones used by the director have precluded people from adding it to their holiday traditions (who sits around a tree and says "let's watch 'Scrooged'!"?), and also because this role was a departure of sorts for Murray. It was his "Cable Guy". The reaction was summed up by Roger Ebert's one-star review where the main problem seemed to be the "disquieting, unsettling" tone and Murray's character, Cross, being a "thoroughly miserable wretch". It's an understandable take and one that was probably widely shared, mostly because by now we all carry an impression of Ebenezer Scrooge as a crusty old miser with a heart of gold just waiting to burst through. The term "scrooge" itself has entered the lexicon as a mild reprimand, a synonym for "party-pooper". Heck, it's almost lovable! What I think we all overlook, however, is how dark, unsettling, and miserable the source material from Dickens actually was. The Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol" was a man who fed himself gruel and wouldn't heat his own home, all just to save money. According to Dickens, "External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty." Ebenezer had long since given up on love, family, or simple pleasures, and further was a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scarping, clutching, covetous old sinner" who "carried his own low temperature always about with him". To him, brotherhood of man was an alien concept, and other people were (at best) commodities or (at worst) things to be loathed. To quote Scrooge, "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart", and he didn't say it to get a laugh. Ignoring the darkest aspects of Scrooge's character is a disservice to the story.
So not only was it fair, it was necessary to make the Cross character the wretch he was. And for my money, Murray did a great job of giving us glimpses of Cross's humanity at even his darkest moments. And how dark was he really? Show me a corporate executive who hasn't fired someone near the holidays to save payroll. Show me a media mogul who hasn't attempted to profit off of people's fears and insecurities. And show me a TV producer who hasn't stapled toy antlers to a mouse.
Okay, so that last one doesn't stick, but that moment in the movie still proves my point. However serious Cross may be about being an ass, Murray delivers it in such a way that allows us to laugh.
Probably what I appreciate most about the film is the adaptation. Say what you will about the folly of modernizing and American-izing classic tales if 'A Christmas Carol' had to be set in 1980s America, this was the way to do it. There are several moments in the film that are RIGHT, like when the first ghost (Forsythe) appears. Like any scared, ruthless, modern executive, Cross reacts by emptying his revolver at the intruder. The film then shows Cross wise-cracking his way through the visitations mainly because it's entertaining, but also because that would be the defense mechanism of a cynical, world-weary man. These moments fit. Nowadays, studios call it a remake if they take a 20-year-old screenplay and cast different actors. "Scrooged" at least gets credit for being a true reinvention.
Sure, there are flaws. Karen Allen's character is weak and Cross's speech at the end is cloying and drawn out. And maybe too much slapstick with the ghosts. But I still consider this an underrated gem.
Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Confessions of a Philistine
Au Hasard Balthazar will generally elicit reviews from two types of people: those who consider it an incomprehensible piece of art-house crap, and those who marvel at the genius of Bresson.
I, however, fall somewhere in the middle. I'm aware that Bresson's movie is filled with symbolism and layered with subtext, but his approach turns me off. Bresson's mantra is this: no acting under any circumstances. Step 1 is to hire non-actors. Step 2 is to direct them not to emote. Step 3 is to keep reshooting the scene until the actors give up emoting. It was common for him to do 30 takes of even the simplest scenes. He doesn't do this to be cruel, but because he sincerely believes the truth of the material cannot be revealed until the people saying the lines stop thinking about the fact that they are saying lines. A kind of brute force method of ensuring that no one on his set is attempting to craft a performance. He definitely gets what he's after, but whether or not it's worth seeing is questionable.
As a movie viewer raised in the spoon-fed post-Spielberg Hollywood era, I find it tough to get through Bresson. I disliked Balthazar, but not because I think it's crap. Bresson made his film inaccessible so it would be hard to understand, but because it's so pretentious I didn't WANT to understand it.
The Arabesque Drinking Game
Despite Gregory Peck's remarkable career, some still thought of him as a poor man's Cary Grant, and this film unfortunately reinforces that. The screenplay was written for Grant, and Peck got the part only after Grant turned it down AND recommended Peck. Even at that, it seems as if the filmmakers made no attempt to play to Peck's strengths, and they didn't even adapt his lines.
So as a fan of Stanley Donen and Peck and Loren, I was profoundly disappointed by this movie. It reeks of mediocrity and a definite sense of "let's just get this one in the can". The comedy is forced, the direction is relentlessly gimmicky, and the plot makes for pretty forgettable stuff. Plus the "Arabs" in this film are played by the following: an Italian, a Greek, an Irishman, and a slew of English character actors, many of whom used comical pancake makeup to achieve a Middle Eastern look. It's reminiscent of the black-face days of Hollywood, and it gets kind of embarrassing to watch, really.
So if you have to watch it, I recommend making a drinking game out of it. Whenever Donen aims his camera through glass or a mirror or uses a reflection (and this happens A LOT), everyone drinks. Have another slug for every one of Sophia's costume changes. And you have to finish your drink if someone in the film uses a hopelessly dated 60's term like "Daddy-O". This might actually make the scene with Pollock wandering the street entertaining.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
It's the "Check On It" of cinema!
The genius of this film is truly sublime. Consider the heroine: G-Girl (which I choose to interpret as "Go, Girl!") is without a doubt the most powerful woman in the world, yet her character is saddled with neurotic insecurity to the point where she would rather let a stray MX missile maim thousands than leave "her man" alone with another woman for five minutes. Yes, this is profoundly representative of the need for validation found in all of us, and the way it is brought out in the film (i.e., without humor) certainly drives the point home.
Witness Exhibit B, when Jenny first gets her superpowers. She immediately goes blonde and gains two cup sizes (and can fly). What a powerful comment on society's superficial expectations of women and today's "push-up" mentality. The movie's creators are clearly screaming "Why, oh, why can't a woman be considered SUPER without at least a C-cup?" And the fact that the movie never states this view, or even parodies it, or even obliquely approaches the topic, that is just proof of the genius behind the message.
The premise that giving a woman superpowers would just exaggerate her innate vindictiveness would seem to spring from the mind of a recently dumped adolescent male. But don't you see? It's that MIND the movie is satirizing. So what if they were working so hard on the message that they forgot to put any actual comedy in the movie? The message is there.
Or maybe it's just a bunch of unfunny, misogynist tripe.
Is Mystery Science Theater for you?
There is a joke early on in MST3K: The Movie that I think serves as a perfect litmus test for whether you'll enjoy this movie. The opening credits of This Island Earth are starting, and a title card reads "A Universal-International Picture". At this point Mike Nelson intones "Doesn't the fact that it's universal make it international?"
The line epitomizes the irreverence and style one can expect from the hundreds of other one-liners that will be tossed out over the next hour and a half. Nothing in a movie is more taken for granted than a credit sequence, but then again nothing is beyond the notice of our test subjects. It is also a good example of their Midwestern style of humor, which is a mix of dry sarcasm, wry sophistication, and a sincere desire to not offend. The last of these is probably the key to appreciating what Mike and the Bots are doing. The idea is not to ridicule another person's life's work, as some have contended, the idea is to make the best of a bad situation (i.e., the movie). Once that spirit is accepted, the movie surrounding the movie can be appreciated in the gentle good humor that it's intended.
Above all, the creators of MST3K are fans of movies and, just like southern comedians who constantly rip on the South, they see all the weaknesses just as well as the strengths. I've seen a great deal of the TV episodes, and this movie adaptation represents one of their best overall efforts.
"I just got out of the tube, man!"
A Mighty Wind (2003)
If you've already seen Best in Show, skip it
'A Mighty Wind' has been billed as "from the makers of 'Best in Show' and 'This Is Spinal Tap' ", and that much is truth in advertising. But while it shares a lot with its predecessors beside the casts, it tries a little too hard and falls a little short of those efforts.
If you've seen 'Best in Show,' then the first half-hour of 'A Mighty Wind' serves as a class reunion, wherein you get to see all your favorite actors return in different guises. It almost plays out like a game of musical chairs, where each participant gets to bring the same madcap sensibility to a different character than before. For instance, Jane Lynch, who before played a butch, semi-closeted, lesbian dog trainer, now returns as a (straight) porn-star-turned-folk singer. Jennifer Coolidge, who before played a ditsy, superficial heiress-to-be, now plays a ditsy, superficial promoter's wife. Michael McKean's character is now straight. Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, instead of having their marriage tested, are having their separation tested. For many of the troupe, the changes are completely superficial. For example, Levy plays the same lovable schmuck, only with a different hair style and a funny voice. Fred Willard doesn't even bother with a funny voice.
Since the movie tries so hard to emulate 'Best in Show,' a direct comparison is fair, and this is where it comes up wanting. In 'Best in Show,' each actor managed to find a near perfect balance with their character, and each scene pushed the comic envelope just far enough. Everyone stayed true and believable to their character throughout, while at the same time milking the maximum potential comedy from the situation. 'A Mighty Wind' often accomplishes that, but it also has several instances where they stray too far one way or another. A good example is Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban), who swings from calm & reasonable understatement to zany incomprehension of lampposts. The music, which in 'Spinal Tap' was ideally true to the source while being satirical, is here so true to the source that little humor comes out of it. The scenes between Levy and O'Hara often get too sentimental to be funny.
Perhaps some of this is intentional on their parts, but the result is a disappointing effort for fans of 'Best in Show'. On the other hand if you have not seen 'Best in Show,' I would recommend seeing this first as a prequel, and I bet you'll wind up enjoying both thoroughly.
Transporter 2 (2005)
I'm all for judging a movie based on the director's intent versus some high-minded ideal of what a film should be. For instance, I would give both Citizen Kane and Terminator 2 10 out of 10 stars because they both perfectly embodied the vision of the creator (character study vs. adrenaline rush). I would consider it elitist to think Welles's goal to be more worthy than Cameron's. So I approached Transporter 2 not only with that in mind but also having liked the first Transporter.
But this one still bites.
We know that character and plot development are not the priorities in an action film, but the audience needs something. The characters have to be at least mildly interesting and the plot borderline comprehensible, otherwise we get distracted and lose interest. Halfway through this movie I didn't care what happened anymore and was just holding out for a good action sequence.
First, the characters. Our hero is a robot who literally dodges bullets, never changes expression, and can take any amount of punishment. Ho-hum. Our villain is a Columbian drug lord (what, the Nazis weren't available?) who is a pure sociopath with unlimited money and henchmen. Our hero's friend is second-banana comic-relief who helps our hero and the plot as needed. He's also not funny. None of them do anything unexpected, and none of them change. Heck, the tertiary characters are more fleshed out than these guys.
Now the plot. As near as I can determine, the villain's plan is this: he'll help his drug trade by killing a bunch of drug enforcement officials ("czars") at a big conference. Instead of a conventional bomb arrangement, he opts for a 100% lethal communicable disease that kills within 12 hours. So he kidnaps one czar's son THE MORNING OF THE CONFERENCE, infects the kid while holding him for "ransom", then returns him in time to infect the father before the father leaves his sick and traumatized son to head to the conference. Got all that? Oh, and the bad guy decides to test the deadly communicable disease on his own henchmen the morning of the kidnapping. And the kidnapping is planned the day before. I'm betting not unlike the script.
The kicker is, the Columbian drug lord's plan WORKS. The czar does get infected, he does go to the conference and infect others, and the others do leave the conference not knowing they're infected. By the time our hero gets his hands on the antidote (which is enough for maybe 10 people), half the city could be infected. But that's probably just a minor loose end. Maybe Transporter 3 will be set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
So is this sloppy writing, or just efficient? Other indicators say sloppy. Yes, there is a stereotypical scene near the end where the hero confronts the bad guy and the bad guy explains his entire plan to him. Yes, the villain could kill the hero but delegates the job to a henchman. Yes, the henchman could easily shoot our hero but literally walks within hand-fighting range and gets disarmed. And yes, the villain walks away assuming the hero got killed. So I say sloppy.
But let's say you don't care about any of that, just the action. I'm afraid you'll get a mixed bag. There's the standard gun play, car chases, and twelve-against-one martial arts fighting, plus there is one excellent scene where our hero disables a bunch of bad guys with a fire hose. That's all well and fine, but where it really breaks down are the CGI scenes, which are fake enough to be insulting. One scene shows the transporter's car jumping from the middle of one parking garage across the street to another parking garage, and another is the final fight scene in an out-of-control Gulfstream jet. Both look like cartoons. The idea of a special effects shot is that you're not supposed to be able to tell it's a special effects shot, and these fail miserably. Even the non-CGI stunts are silly. At one point our hero spins his car 360° in the air (so that it is belly-up at one point) in order to dislodge a bomb from the bottom. Sounds cool to see, right? It's not. The audience laughed.
The insults don't stop there. There's product placement. When the hero opens his fridge, there are 3 bottles of Heineken staring at us, all with the labels positioned perfectly for the camera. Within the first 60 seconds of the movie we have a 2-second ad for a watch and a 58-second ad for the car. In fact the whole movie serves as an Audi ad. The car does not receive one dent, ding, scratch, bullet hole, or broken taillight the entire film. Even James Bond loses a taillight now and then. If you're going to stretch the bounds of credulity to that extreme, at least make a joke about it. As it was, the audience was laughing unintentionally.
If you're a fan of the first one, maybe rent this. 3/10
Sin City (2005)
Sin City is everything it's supposed to be. It's faithful to the original material, near-flawless in the execution, violent, visually engaging, and innovative. The latest definition of cool since Pulp Fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
You can't blame anyone (male or female) for despising the movie. It's probably one of the most misogynist films ever made. With one exception, every female character is either a hooker or a stripper, and with no exceptions they all rely on a man to get them out of trouble. Jessica Alba tried to defend the movie in the press by saying she thought all the female characters were "empowered". I guess you could see it that way if you considered "whores with guns instead of pimps" to be empowerment.
The problem, if one insists on seeing it that way, is the source material. Comic books are one of the last American bastions of chauvinism (along with Tom Clancy novels). Whether you're talking comics or graphic novels, the authors are almost exclusively male, and the intended audience is as well. Women whether they are heroines, villains, or damsels-in-distress are there to be provocative and sell copies, and that's about it. Granted Frank Miller has transcended and redefined the genre in many ways, but even he stuck to this standard with Sin City.
Some would accuse the detractors from failing to "look past" the violence, chauvinism, and titillation to see the movie's real themes, but there's a fair question of whether the movie is really about these things or just using them to tell the story. In the end they are inseparable, because these stories can't be told any other way. And if someone can do without these stories being told at all, you have to respect that.
As I guy, I would still recommend this movie. It's supposed to show you some dark places.