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The Girl (1996)
Another Catherine Cookson classic
A good story never fades or ages, and that can be said for all of the movie-versions of Catherine Cookson's powerful novels. In spite of this movie being almost 20 years old, the power of its story and the depiction of the mean-hearted, neglectful wealthy and the struggles of the poor in Britain's North East, the hallmark setting of a Catherine Cookson story, remains timeless. Like all the movie-realizations of her novels, we're shown an almost green-and-pleasant England with its fair share of cruelty, nobility, non-starry-eyed romance, and tragedy transforming into personal triumph. All 2+ hours of this story will fly past in almost no time leaving you sorry that you reached the end.
Django Unchained (2012)
Another Tarantino pointless gore-fest
Once again, Tarantino plays out his inferiorities in film resulting in pointless brutality and blood-splattering. Most of the violence was appalling and gratuitous. Can't he produce a single mature movie that doesn't involve irresponsible brutality and childish revenge? Foxx was brilliant as was Schultz. The 60s spaghetti-western pastiche added flavour to the movie and was entertaining. DiCaprio plays his role as a vicious and brutal slave owner exceedingly convincingly. Samuel Jackson plays his role as a head house slave with uncommon and malignant loyalty to his master very well.
But that stupid gunfight at the end? Bodies flying everywhere and blood splattering all over the place? And going back to the house to exact revenge and blowing it to smithereens with dynamite? Really - come on! This is as puerile as it gets. Tarantino is irresponsible and immature and sets a poor example by exorcising his inferiorities on celluloid.
The real dynamic of this movie, and one that is sadly betrayed by the movie's stupid denouement is the friendly relationship of mutual understanding and respect between Dr. King Schultz and Django. This was the heartbeat of the movie and a delicate one which added magic to the story and that should've played out to the very end, whereas it was crushed by Tarantino's narrow-minded, passive-aggressive approach to life.
Boo to Tarantino. I don't care what the Tarantino-lovers out there think of him, regardless of his scene-framing, camera-angles and stylistic choices. Applause to Foxx and Waltz.
Flawed but dazzling movie about psychopathic individuals that fails to deliver in its own genre
Ridley Scott's prequel to the eponymous Alien is both flawed, easily misunderstood, and underwhelming.
The main premise is a manned mission to find "the architects", the giant humanoid sentient beings who are credited with being mankind's progenitors, who are recorded as strange giant figures in cave paintings and stone carvings pointing to a configuration of stars which closely resemble a star system too far away for the unaided eye to see. Yet, after travelling such vast distances, to meet their ancestors, the humans discover instead a trap, a deadly mutating force that turns worms into muscular glistening snakes. Everything the black goo touches changes and adapts into something menacing and less than welcoming, and the situation worsens as the story rushes towards its inevitable and puzzling conclusion.
The real disappointment in this movie is that it answers neither any of the questions raised in either Alien nor Prometheus itself. Why is this? Well, it's unlikely by design, however probably as a consequence of focussing on creating spectacle and bedazzlement and huge set-pieces rather than a strong, well-crafted story. Any sense of awe and mystery evaporates quickly as the characters prove themselves to be emotional adolescents, unfascinated with their discovery, and who all possess the perceptiveness of Mr Bean. Any promise of menace leaks away in concepts too lofty against such an assortment of caricature characters and there is no pay-off on this as well. The only individual who is well-formed and engaging enough to live up to this movie is David, the android.
I feel that one of the reasons why the movie is misunderstood is because, rather than a discussion about razor-toothed exo-skeletal extraterrestrials or otherworldly astronauts, the movie's throughline concerns the monsters within and among us. The plot weaves a story that is so exquisite in its subtlety that it is easily drowned out by the story's inconsistencies and irrational plot-threads. The tycoon who finances the space mission is as conscience-less as his emotionless android, David, who while the humans are in stasis during the 2 year spaceflight watches endless reruns of Lawrence of Arabia - itself a movie about a troubled man struggling to discover his identity. Worse still, David the android, the only "son" of the tycoon carries his own dark secrets and sinister resentments, which catalyse the chaos and destruction, until - decapitated - he coldly bargains his escape with the only remaining human survivor.
Furthermore, it turns out mankind's fictional ancestors are just as psychopathic as the tycoon who is hidden away in cryostasis aboard the ship in the eager hope that their progenitors will grant him the secret of eternal youth. Stuck in the the terrible waltz weaved by the dysfunctional trio of tycoon, daughter and David, the crew is stranded to become the hapless victims, until - finally - the movie's dazzling and awesome finale.
To say that the movie is a total flop is unfair. Nevertheless, it is a story focused on a subtle concept which is hard to depict no matter where and when the movie is set. Also, to say it's brilliant is stretching the point too thin. Even so, it is a cleverly constructed story that attempts to throw a light on the emotional detachment and psychopathic personalities of rich and powerful, and to spin us a story on a par with any Greek tragedy about absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Boogie Nights (1997)
An excellently delivered slice of amorality
Imagine if you bought a beautifully bound book with the right font-size and easy-to-read chapters to read to your children, but as you read a chapter each night it became clear that it raised more moral and ethical questions than it answered - would you be pleased? I dare say there's a few who will read this who will argue they would out of sheer ideological defiance; but the majority of parents wouldn't like their children to be exposed to moral filth.
Boogie Nights is an amoral movie - by that, I mean that it is a semi-docudrama screenplay about a young man's entry into the porn-industry and the chaos and upheaval that lifestyle creates in both his and other peoples' lives without providing any moral perspective. Throughout the movie, the only people who object are narrow-minded bigots, and those who embrace it are intelligent and enlightened.
Yet, it depicts a movie-making scene peopled by morally-ambiguous characters, who swing and sleep around despite being married, and are entangled in pornographic pursuits to one degree or another. This has got to be - yet again - another example of Hollywood money thrown at a movie to reinforce relativistic, amoral values and mock principles and anyone who lives by them.
All the actors deliver utterly convincing roles, along with all their fetishes and sexual openness. The movie portrays victims of the porn-industry along with its winners. The only thing it fails to show is the absolute consequences, and those who suffer consequences do so only by virtue of being caught in the act.
The Waltons (1971)
In the UK, the Waltons was a regular TV feature that marked out the 1970s decade, and - while its story lines contained the contemporary issue of its production time, and sometimes with a grain or two of excessive schmaltz - it remains to this day a remarkable achievement in TV history. I have to admit that my prejudices were foremost in my mind when my Brazilian wife requested me to buy the first four series boxed-set DVDs, and I advised her that I'd buy the first series only to see if she appreciated it before purchasing any more. But I was wrong. She consumed the series and, before long, I was hooked too. Nothing on TV today or or since the Waltons has ever portrayed loving, united and supportive family as courageously as the Waltons. If only I appreciated this when I was a teenager and the series came to a close in the very early 80's. By then, the world and his wife had enough of the Waltons and it was an idea that had outlived its usefulness, giving rise to a number of made-for-TV movies that were generally plot-less and nostalgic. Who would've ever guessed that in a matter of a few decades, after moral decay and worsening family values and a hefty back-catalogue of many TV series that espoused dysfunction and moral ambiguity, that the Waltons would arise like the phoenix from the ashes to entertain families around the world and educate us all in what a loving and united family looks like.
There are several comments that denounce the Waltons, because of its unrealistic portrayal of the Great Depression. They have a point - but nobody really knows how Virginian farming-community families lived during the Great Depression, because all we have are the novels and newspaper reports that focus on the drama and tragedy. In truth, the Waltons indeed do seem to be saved financially at the ninth hour by some act of compassion or sacrifice. But this is the whole point of the show. Unlike today's self-centered, egotistical, morally ambiguous solutions popularized by today's TV shows, the Waltons wasn't about portraying the Great Depression realistically, but about portraying wholesome family life. Sure, maybe such a family is a myth, but it's one worth aspiring to.
However, we mustn't forget that The Waltons depicted not only the Depression but also the struggle to survive for farming communities during the War Years, when the US industrialized. This is often overlooked, but is worth mentioning as it provides a backdrop of a historically important developments in US history. The Waltons simply portrays a world and time that has disappeared.
Every episode is jam-packed with heart and compassion and the Waltons overcome their ordeals through respect and understanding.
It's worth pointing out to the 'realists' out there that the show's pilot is a much more authentic portrayal of the Great Depression, centering around the theme of John Walton returning home through the ice and snow from Richmond to spend Christmas with his family. In that pilot episode, John-Boy and the children are acted by the same cast, however Olivia Walton and John Walton are played by different actors. Throughout the 90-minute screenplay, John-Boy is shown to be wracked by self-doubt and fears for his father's safe return in time for Christmas. The children are lost and forlorn and toil through the wintry conditions. Olivia Walton is haggard, nervy and verging on mental collapse - her character is portrayed as dark and regretful and morose. The entire pilot episode jars the soul and fails to unite as seamlessly as the subsequent series did. It took guts and vision to the producers and sponsors to back the series on the basis of that pilot, and real insight to re-cast Olivia and John Walton and polish up the scripts to focus on functional rather than dysfunctional family life.
Nobody needs reminding of how terrible the Great Depression was or how the evil banks exploited the poor and desperate. We have enough reminders about these facts today. And it's probably a sad fact that even the cast of the show had family-lives that were poor reflections of those they played in the Waltons. Even so, what people need is to see something good and praiseworthy and beautiful, something they can aspire to, rather than earthy, visceral and pessimistic. Nobody created the Waltons to address the sins of the Depression, but to deliver a show about a family where every member of the family is loved, not just by the fictional characters, but also by the viewers. I have to confess it is amazing how at home I feel when I watch an episode and how familiar the Waltons feel to me, almost as if they're extended family to me. Perhaps this is the real genius of the show and why there are so many faithful followers of the show who visit conventions, Waltons Mountain (in California!), and write to the cast and plead for more reunion TV appearances. Sure, I see the odd moment of schmaltz or social commentary, but I recognize it and ignore it in favour of the wholesome values the show espouses.
The Waltons is a gem of TV production that - like good wine - had to stand for a few years before it matured into the product that many value. It deserves to be remembered, re-watched and applauded in the annals of good TV for the sake of generations yet to come. Buy it while you can and cherish it. Future generations will probably become parents who believe that Desperate Housewives, the Sopranos, Confessions of a Call Girl, Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Cold Case are family-friendly, wholesome productions.
Biased and cheap
Bill Maher is clearly a man who hated what Catholicism had to say to him when he was a young boy and has spent a lifetime mocking and denigrating Christians and Christianity in an effort to make himself feel better and gather like-minded people around him to reinforce his agenda.
This isn't a serious documentary with genuine questions: rather, it's an exercise in mockery.
Maher deliberately chooses interviewees who are most vulnerable to ridicule. If he can't ridicule them immediately, then he uses snide diversions ("Look at that!" he says to the ex-Jew for Jesus, pointing to an angel figurine, while his subject is five seconds into answering Maher's question. "Expensive, isn't it?") He chooses individuals who aren't articulate and sharp-witted and capable of providing intelligent and insightful answers to his crude questions. I get the sense that many of his subjects were unprepared for the kind of questions they'd have to answer, but were misled about the thrust of the interviews.
Islam is given far less attention than Christianity, the real target of his campaign. Using simplistic straw-men, he demeans and mocks his subjects - or has the movie edited to create this effect - with the clear aim of arguing that religion is dangerous and all those who follow religion are morons.
It's interesting to note that Maher never interviews missionaries who help third world communities to rise above poverty or Christian orphanages in third and second world countries that save street-children from becoming life-long sex-slaves. You don't see him interview people from all walks of life who have had out-of-body or near-death experiences. Maher takes no real leap of courage and instead concentrates on religious believers who live in their own small world.
In short, Maher is not asking genuine questions at all, but just using the religious as the piñata of his jokes. Very low blow, Bill Maher. Very cheap.
The only thing this shoddy piece of journalistic film-making proves is that Maher is easily as much - if not more - a bigot and zealot as those he interviews.
Star Trek (2009)
Reboot? No! - Old boots!! (MANY SPOILERS)
Like most human beings on the planet, I've seen most Star Trek offerings in one adaptation or another, and there's nowhere you can go to escape its pervasive influence - as Shatner discovered once in India. I grew up seeing the first airing on UK TV of TOS and was utterly mesmerised and awe-inspired. The effects were crap, the starships unconvincing, the camera-rolls (as the ship shook) comical, the studio-sets glaringly obvious, made-for-TV-style evident, but... you know, the stories were powerul and full-bodied and a lot of thought were put into them.
This movie is the reverse. Great effects, astonishing setpieces, convincing starship interiors, sweeping panoramas... but the storyline really sucks big time. The individual actors performed excellently, and they delivered their characters with dedication and reverence to the franchise, but come on... really? Would Kirk actually usurp the acting captain by out-arguing him? Would Spock "lose it" rather than just call security and have Kirk put in the brig? He never "lost it" in TOS unless a biological or chemical agent or mind-control was involved (where we'd see others from his perspective through a fish-eye lens). Would Kirk really "by chance" meet alternative-timeline Spock and be transported back to the Enterprise? And if Spock disposed of Kirk so coolly the first time, using his Vulcan nerve-pinch while Kirk struggles with security, why couldn't he just do the same again? Would the "old" Spock meet the "young" Spock and tell him "Good luck" (how lame is that?) in a post-modern stylie? Neither is there a convincing villain of substance or merit that glues the story together and it employs that hackneyed trick that all modern directors use when they want to justifiably alter a back-story: a black-hole. And Nero? Doesn't he and his minions have the same homogenised look and feel of all the other Next Generation villains? Where the hell were the Klingons? The Romulans?! They hardly appeared in TOS. And if the Vulcans lost their homeworld, then where did Spock go to get resurrected in The Search For Spock?
I know it could be argued that it advances the franchise's progress. Or even that it's a unique movie in its own right and should be accepted on its own merits. If that's the case, then why all the trailers and hype and buildup on sight and sound references to TOS icons? Why not just hype it up as an independent, new-concept, re-interpretation movie? Because the producers, directors and distributors know it would've tanked and needed to spend 7 years in the DVD/foreign markets to recover its losses. That's why. Look at how the incredible hulk concept suffered because of Ang Lee's Hulk, and just how long it took before the distributors/studios were willing to develop the far superior and more reverent Hulk 2.
This movie is unfulfilling tripe. It contains storyline elements that undermine all the TV shows and movies. The plot is shallow as a puddle. Eye-candy. Pure eye-candy. That's all it is.
The directors will have to work really hard and make a lot of amends if they want my respect for the alleged sequel said to be scheduled for Summer 2011.
Le dernier combat (1983)
Brilliant debut movie
This is an example of what film school lecturers would call a good debut movie. It follows all the rules. Short scenes, to the point, cheap to shoot, guerilla-film-making, no sets (just disused buildings) and possibly an empty hospital wing. Also, even the black&white film-stock was a stroke of genius, probably selected more for its low expense rather than film effect, but it worked.
Reno was amazing as the Brute. Everyone's acting was brilliant. The plot was simple and effective and no flabby bits left to distract you. A tight, well-crafted, cost-effective budget movie.
Released in 1983, this would've been made just before the art of big-budget action spectaculars became refined by the Hollywood movie-making engine, and movie-making was more exclusive and therefore more difficult and more in need of the right people in the right places than today's internet-enabled world, so Luc Besson would've had to do quite a bit of negotiating and promise-keeping to achieve this result, which makes the end-product all the more remarkable.
But, then again, the French movie-industry has always maintained an excellent reputation (yes, I know Luc Besson is Belgian, but the movie is a French production) and has been the source of many Hollywood remakes.
If I have one criticism, it's that the cover-picture on the DVD (and possibly the original sales poster) bears no resemblance to the movie whatsoever and appears to be a rather bizarre image rather than representative of any of the movie's themes - at first glance, it appears to be a man in post-apocalyptic armour on a swing, but on second inspection reveals a man in armour with a lance on an office chair with his legs on a desk in a reclined, self-confident posture. This never happens in the movie once.
It's black-and-white film-stock, zero dialogue, physical acting, tight scenes and brilliant actors makes this movie one worth adding to your private movie collection. A superb movie.
Righteous Kill (2008)
Two great actors in an unchallenging, hackneyed movie
I saw this movie expecting the same on-screen buzz in Heat when Pacino and De Niro faced off in their mutual-love-hate tete-a-tete in the highway diner scene, but instead was offered a story about two ageing cops who ooze hate for criminals (Pacino's is an apparent cold indifference that simmers with unconfessed hatred, De Niro's is a loud, explosive, warts-and-all dislike of the criminal system's repeated failure to administer true justice).
But right from the start, the movie lacks the zing that you expect from either actor, even if they're not in the same movie or scenes together. Granted, De Niro and Pacino are older than they were in Heat, but even so neither are over-the-hill by a long stretch and the directing could've brought more commanding performances out of them.
There's also the sheer level of hype regarding these two's roles. They play entirely different characters than in their previous collaborations and so are limited by the movie-people they play. If so much hype hadn't been created regarding their involvement, it might've passed as a reasonable movie.
However, the story overall is hackneyed, familiar and has been delivered enough times, and delivered in such an unenthusiastic manner that we - the audience - never actually care who the killer is, why it's happening or what's going to be done about him/her. It's a movie going through the motions, like painting by numbers, and reaches its inevitable conclusion which the majority of the audience will figure out by the beginning of the movie's third act.
Destination Gobi (1953)
Another US how-we-won-the-war movie with US-stereotypes of other cultures
Hollywood was awash with triumphalist movies about the US military's comrades-in-arms in the first 10 years after the war in a self-congratulating furore to re-write history according to US attitudes and prejudices. You know the routine: sassy one-liners, everyone's nickname is "Mac" or "Buddy", everyone looks like a hero, serious leg-wounds that hospitalize us mortals are laughed off as inconvenient flesh-wounds that only need a quick bandage. Not for the Japs or Jerries, of course. The nasty-horrible baddies pepper the battlefield with bullets and grenades and one US hero dies; the US lieutenant fires his pistol once and a squadron of Nazi tanks explode and a thousand enemy soldiers writhe on the floor in screaming death-throes. Ha, ha, ha... ho, ho, ho... this is how we won the war, boys! It's so clichéd it could pass for pantomime.
Destination Gobi is no exception. Watching this movie demonstrates how much our attitudes have changed.
This is another one of those movies, but with the added bonus of being set in the Gobi Desert... if the Gobi Desert looks anything like California. The Mongols are suspicious savages - little more than replicas of the caricatured American Indians, but wearing supposed Mongolian clothes instead. The Mongols ride big, US Cavalry style horses and speak in monosyllabic words. They steal stuff from the US navy men. They want to kill one of them for using a camera, naturally. Makes sense, of course... since the Mongolians are ignorant savages who don't respect the brave US military servicemen and they all think a little camera's going to kill them.
It never occurred to the film-makers to actually visit Mongolia and find out that the Mongolians ride small but sturdy ponies, live on a diet of goats and sheep milk and meat, learn how to wrestle for a centuries-old tradition of annual competitions, thunder across the desert and steppes on their ponies for countless miles in great tribal gatherings, have a typical Far Eastern respect for foreigners and strangers and their possessions and are a modest, reserved breed of people who live a tough existence in one of the most windswept places on earth. If the film-makers had, the Mongolians in this movie wouldn't have ended up looking like Klingons in fur caftans.
Of course, the brave, all-knowing US servicemen in this movie drill the Mongolians in cavalry techniques. Only stands to reason, naturally. If it weren't for the US Cavalry in the Middle Ages, Genghis Khan wouldn't have sacked China, traversed the endless Russian Steppes, crushed a mighty East Indian kingdom guarded by walled fortress cities, crossed the unexplored Arabian Desert, sieged Baghdad while it was being invaded by Crusaders, and thundered into a startled Europe.
Having been raised on a diet of such laughable caricatures and cultural superiority (as we all were in the 1960s, 70s and 80s), is it any wonder that the US faces current levels of fragile international relations?