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Barry Lyndon (1975)
A landmark of Kubrick's career...
With the telephoto lens freezing the characters to look as if they are in portraits in so many shots, and with the trite dialogue, one might consider Barry Lyndon to be at the peak of Stanley Kubrick's frigid meticulousness, but it isn't. In fact, this film might be considered one of the landmarks of Kubrick's career, his fullest realization of his artistic style. He has been considered unemotional but it is clear in Barry Lyndon that Kubrick is emotional with the same kind of gentlemanly refinement that the main characters of this film posses. He is emotional without flaunting it. He lets his emotions leak out at certain times in the first half of the film. But, when he lets a lot of emotion leak out in the second half of the film, it freezes like ice; he doesn't know how to show emotions to a melodramatic extent which causes the second half of this film to be a tremendous bore. The first half is something special, though. Based on the novel by William Mackepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon follows a young Irishman named Redmond Barry in 18th century Europe as he moves up to the top of the social latter.
The first half of the film has many hand-held shots of battle; pristinely composed shots that milk the telephoto lens expertly become more prevalent within the second half of the film. I'd see the first half of the film for the trite-but-enjoyable performance by Ryan O'Neal and Barry's delightful encounters with galleries of interesting and sometimes touching characters. The only reason not to check out at the 'Intermission' is the skilled performance by Murray Melvin and innovative cinematography by John Alcott, filmed with a lens made by NASA that allowed Kubrick to use natural light with interior shots.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's opera. Most critics and audiences were disappointed by the film, expecting another one of QT's bloodbath exercises.
I can't understand how a clever, empty style-fest like Pulp Fiction could've been praised as a masterpiece while others are actually disappointed to see that Tarantino has decided to slow down and focus on his characters. Here we have the same play on old 70's gangster clichés as in Pulp and Reservoir Dogs. However, it is done with depth (which critics didn't notice), flow (which bored critics), and refinement (which really made critics mad). I'm sad to say that those who are expecting Pam Grier to whip out a shotgun and preach the Bible will be disappointed. Here we have a story about what happens to gangsters in their old age, when they get worn out by an intense profession. That's not all it is about; each character in the ensemble has his own story. Grier, as Jackie Brown, is scared about the future, with a lousy job as an airline stewardess and a drug charge hanging over her head; she is also getting old and fears that her 'foxy brown' image might be wearing thin. Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) is a gun dealer who wants to retire, but is such a megalomaniac that few of his friends actually trust him; the odds of him ever being able to comfortably settle down are slim to none. He is also concerned about his partner, Louis (Robert De Niro), who just got out of the joint and seems to have lost the street-smarts (and even the regular smarts) that he had before he went away. Bridget Fonda is Melanie, Ordell's mistress of sorts, whose life has slowed down; she spends her time doing drugs, watching TV, and scheming against Ordell. Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is a by-the-book bail bondsman who is fifty-six years old and is thinking about getting into a scheme with Jackie.
The only main character without too much depth is Ray Nicolette (played by Michael Keaton, who plays the same character in Steven Soderbergh's dazzling Out of Sight); Michael Keaton plays him memorably though. Grier gives a triumphantly good performance, blending her 70's funky (albeit tacky) style and wonderful charisma with great classic melodrama. Robert Forster is just as good in a subtler and more poignant performance; what is most likable about his character is that the two main reasons he starts thinking about scheming against Ordell with Jackie is that (a.) he loves her and (b.) he wants to get his young genre-cool back. Samuel L. Jackson drops his flashiness-for-the-sake-of-flashiness from Pulp Fiction and plays a sad, lonely man in a world filled with friends who hate his guts. He wants to trick everyone into thinking that he is Jules, from Pulp, and tries to justify his life in front of others. But, in the end, he is a toothless rat, threatening others in a feeble and desperate tone of voice.
De Niro and Fonda are both funny in a relationship that turns for the worse and ends in a way that reminds us how fickle a life the crook can lead, one where relationships can shift on the whim of one's viscera. Spike Lee and others were infuriated by Tarantino's constant use of the n-word in the film, mostly by Samuel L. Jackson. This criticism misses the point of what QT is trying to do: degrade the n-word. The characters use it, and re-use, until it is drained of its terrible power. It is the kind of wonderful liberation that a nihilist like Spike Lee could never understand. Based on Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown is packed with twists and with characters discussing their next betrayal to the extent that we are never sure who is being lied to. But each twist means something to each character, which makes the film great. Tarantino is famous for his dialogue, yet his dialogue is not the kind of clever crook-talk that someone like David Mamet delivers; it is funny without the characters knowing that it is funny (the kind of funny that Elmore Leonard has always loved). Tarantino is really an old-fashioned gangster filmmaker, like Raoul Walsh, who doesn't rely on clever lines as much as casual cheer (such as the scene in Walsh's The Roaring Twenties in which James Cagney stuffs a cigar in someone's mouth). He has a love for cynical movies in a humanistic and joyful way that makes him rise above the filmmakers he loves. He cares about every character in Jackie Brown and is sad when one gets killed.
Le mystère Picasso (1956)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso starts by announcing that we will have the pleasure of entering the mind of Pablo Picasso, seeing how he gets his creative inspiration; the film promises us that the only way to do this is to watch Picasso's hand. Picasso paints on paper that the ink bleeds through, putting the camera on the other side of Picasso's canvas and watching the a reversed version painting appear in a seemingly magical way. It becomes clear early on that Clouzot is not wholeheartedly trying to show us how Picasso gets his inspiration; that is a mystery. Clouzot wants to capture the joy of painting. That's what makes this film so entertaining: watching bizarre, beautiful images appear out of nowhere. Sometimes Clouzot uses jump-cuts to show us the different phases of a work in progress at a rapid-fire velocity and then reverses the painting in the same jump-cut technique, deconstructing Picasso's. This is all scored to fiery jazz music. We also see Picasso while painting, as his painting is timed. (Picasso has a great screen presence). Clouzot is equally concerned with deconstructing Picasso's work to understand what makes this fast-working artist tick, showing how impossible that task is, and wowing us all the way through. As far as wowing goes, Clouzot did a pretty good job, with scenes that ranged from unforgettable to pleasantly surprising.
Pierrot le fou (1965)
I love Godard--SPOILERS
What I love about Jean-Luc Godard is that he is honest, smart, and has no humility. He has no fear of taking chances, even when it is obvious that those chances won't work out. This causes each film he to be makes exciting, visceral, and ruthlessly demanding, even when they don't come together in the end. Pierre le Fou does come together in the end-even if it goes everywhere and nowhere before it does. The film stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Pierre, a man who is getting tired of his drab life in a snooty upper-class society. Pierre meets Marianne (Anna Karina), who is being chased by hit men from Algeria. They hit the road together and travel from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout all of this we get to meet Sam Fuller, who discusses a movie he is working on, we see some Godardishly over-the-top parodying of gung-ho Americana, we get some chapter introductions (they all say 'next chapter', suggesting that Marianne and Pierre live in such an erratic world that all that matters is what happens next, not what has happened before), and more and more blatant acknowledgements that we are watching a movie ('Who are you talking to?' 'The audience.' 'Oh.'). I love the genre-existentialist way that Pierre (and Godard) accepts that he will have his inevitable grand death scene and learns to take advantage of his life on the way. Belmondo is good playing a grubbier version of his character in Breathless; Karina is memorable as well. However, despite the film's wonders, I can't say that I felt the punch of wild intensity that I felt watching all of the other Godard films. I could see it up on the screen, but I couldn't feel it in my bones.
Amores perros (2000)
A decent movie that could've been much better
The flaws in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros underscore a major problem in cinema today: the need for complexity and grandeur-not emotional complexity (the only complexity that deserves credit), mind you, just any kind of complexity. The complexity that is most appreciated is plot complexity. A movie with a few characters about issues of every day life is considered an insignificant film by the media. A great film is big: lots of characters, important problems, dozens of interesting locations. How else can you explain why Pulp Fiction-an endlessly complex film in terms of storytelling, but an emotionally empty one-is so hugely popular? How can you explain why a film like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is considered a more relevant commentary on the war in Iraq than Errol Morris's The Fog of War, a much more complex and thoughtful film about when to engage in war? The reason is that Fahrenheit is on such a large scale; look at the ads: 'From the corridors of power to the streets of small-town America to the front lines!'-it sounds big, it sounds important, or more important than an interview with an old ex-politician in one small room. Does this have any bearing on how provocative Fahrenheit is compared to The Fog of War? Of course not. Anyway, the reason that this affects Iñárritu is that he can't simply tell a story about the responsibility it takes to love someone. To make the film more important, he must chop up the plot structure and make it sloppily non-linear. He did the same thing with 21 Grams and it ruined what could've been a good movie. Iñárritu is a talented filmmaker, a humanist with good dramatic taste and some effective stories to tell. Why can't he trust his material? Amores perros would be closer to being great if it wasn't so afraid of being good. The time I had to take piecing together the confusingly nonlinear plot cut into my ability to appreciate the characters.
The film follows an old hit man (Emilio Echevarría) doing one last job, a young man (Gael García) who has fallen in love with his sadistic brother's wife, and a superstar (Goya Toledo) who lost her dog under the floorboards. All three stories are compelling and the major performances are all great-Emilio Echevarría and Gael García Bernal are particularly excellent-and the dreadfully melancholic score by Gustavo Santaolalla is compelling. Also, there is a car chase scene filmed with an intensity, stemming mainly from skilled sound mixing, that is not matched by any other car chase scene. I'd see the film for the raw materials, even if they were chopped up pretty badly.
"Taylor Hackford...has never been a storyteller..."
Taylor Hackford, director of The Devil's Advocate, has never been a storyteller. The scripts he directs are slapped together out of dusty formulas in which a two-year-old could predict what happens in the end. Yet they are always directed with such flabbergasting and elegant grandeur that they seem fresh and alive to the most skeptical movie audiences. Don't get me wrong, Ray, a new movie about singer/musician Ray Charles, is decently written by James L. White, who gives the a few somewhat new elements and portrays Charles with admirable depth and accuracy (without trying to make us forget about the illegal drugs and the marital infidelities), but the story is basically your typical 'rags to riches'/'rise and fall' tale. However, it's a firecracker. The scenes onstage are intense; the scenes offstage are powerful. Hackford cleverly refuses to foreshadow Ray's fall; he has had his rise and we know that the fall will come soon but we simply must sit uncomfortably in our seats, watching Ray walk into his next luxurious mansion (Hackford has a love of majestic sets), terrified that it will all go wrong soon. We see Hackford acknowledging the formulaic plot like he did in The Devil's Advocate, only here it is done with a great director's cunning. I'm sure, by now, you're wondering who plays Ray (if you've been living under a rock). It is Jamie Foxx and he is superb, playing the role with charm and tactful ambiguity. He knows when his character should add some depth and when he should knock us off our feat. We love his smile and his fitfully waving arms, but we feel that there is something empty inside. And Hackford and Foxx work together in the end, to show us where this emptiness comes from and to ask whether or not it really is emptiness. I'd see the movie just for the scenes on stage that are so kinetic that those who are unfamiliar with Charles' music start to love it within (literally) seconds. Of course, some of the credit must go to Mr. Charles himself.
Tokyo Goddofazazu (2003)
Quirky but mediocre
Tokyo Godfathers, by Shogo Furuya and Satoshi Kon, is an anime film so content to be mediocre that it is dispiriting to watch. It follows three destitute friends, a man, a transvestite, and a teenage girl, who find a baby on the street and try to take care of it. This alone is cliché and cloying but it only gets worse. The film can't decide if it wants to be melodramatic or realistic and so is filled with scenes of cornballish plot developments and splotched by serious ones (there is scene where a mobster gets shot in the head!). The film is done with too light a touch when it should pound away at the corniness and is too corny when it should earn our respect. So many critics have forgiven the films lukewarm impact for its humanism. I am all for humanism, but I must say that the jarring stereotypes of transvestites (the transvestite character is made to look like freak) make me a little reluctant to praise this humanism critics speak of. I suppose the only real reason to catch this film is its radically weird style, with an awesome chase scene fueled by tacky music that sounds like its from a Sega 'Mario Brothers' game and ending with a shot of a dancing tower.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves is the kind of film that makes me proud to be a film-goer and exceeds anything I could have possibly expected from the man who made Element of Crime. That film had some clever experimentation (and so does this one) but this film is the kind that's beauty and power echoes in your mind hours after you've watched it. This is a flabbergasting work of art that portrays a woman's quest to please God and does so with the complexity and emotional power of a Bergman film (not to mention the fact that the film portrays a woman's intense suffering in world sternly ruled by men with the power of a Dreyer film). If von Trier made nothing else of any merit for the rest of his career, if all he did was make marginally interesting film experiments, I wouldn't hesitate to call him a great filmmaker on the soul basis of this film. Anyway, you get the picture
The film stars Emily Watson as Bess, a shy and neurotic girl who is filled with joy to be with her new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard who is exceptional). When Jan is paralyzed after an accident at the oilrig he works in, he is in danger of losing his life. He convinces Bess to see other people and Bess wants nothing more than to make him happy and to prove to God that she loves him. After some disastrous complications, Bess is led to believe that she can please God and save Jan's life by having numerous sexual encounters with strangers in town. This sounds like a grungy tale, but von Trier tells it with such humanism and focus on his themes that we never feel like he is rubbing our faces in drear. And Watson is delightful, frightening, and heartbreaking as a woman who will stop at nothing to please those around her. Her one-sided conversations with God (in which she looks up in the air submissively and pleas and then looks down with a deep voice of wrath and scolds) are both funny and sad, not to mention the fact that they reveal seemingly endless amounts of details about who she is. The film is made with a hand-held camera and a visually stunning solarized style. This style does not make the movie; it just adds richness to each scene in the way it gives each face such shadowy texture. In the end, von Trier seems to believe in God but does not believe in the churches that try to codify what he wants. All of this works because of von Trier's passionate desire to understand how one can please God under horrendous terms; the epilogue, that takes the already-great material to a new level and shows how inspired von Trier is, starts with a moment of sad irony and then leaps to the skies with an image that fills the most atheistic person with questions and the more religiously spiritual people with hope. Here is a film that reaches for the stars and makes it there.
Sideways works because of Paul Giamatti's magnificently poignant and funny performance, Thomas Haden Church's hilariously dry (though not brilliantly written) performance, and Alexander Payne's blunt humor and humanity. There are moments when Payne misses the mark with his broad humor and makes foolish technical mistakes (like fading out in the middle of an important scene and letting the camera linger on something for too long). But Giamatti is dynamite, as always, and Haden Church is surprisingly great. A conventional story to be sure, but it is a lightly amusing time at the movies with one or two great moments (despite the fact that it is treacherously longer than it needs to be).
Monterey Pop (1968)
Without rubbing our face in visual gimmicks like split-screens, Monterey Pop captures the sweaty, bodacious force of a live rock concert-the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Director D.A. Pennebaker does not try too hard to increase the performances' liveliness; why would you try to increase the liveliness of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Mammas and the Poppas, and Simon and Garfunkel? Instead, he films them with a wonderfully gritty photographic style, zooms in to so we can see their perspiring faces, and then lets them do the rest. As for 'defining a generation', the film doesn't do so in the kind of exhaustiveness of Michaek Wadleigh's Woodstock but it does give us a feeling of the life of a sixties radical. If there is one problem with the film, it is Pennebaker's idiotic choice of showing us the confusion as to how the massive audience will be able to be fed. This behind-the-scenes moment shows Pennebaker trying to do what Woodstock did. He shouldn't. He shouldn't let the music stop at all; what is so marvelous about this film is not its ability to capture the feel of a generation through interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, but, rather, through the looks in peoples eyes when the music starts.