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Team America: World Police (2004)
North Korean Cartmann
"Team America" is mostly a riot from start to finish. I say mostly because it's a little uneven in its humor, certainly not as consistently funny as the creators' predecessor, which was just itching to take the film away from the censors on Comedy Central. The new flick has splotches of dead plot advancement that rely too heavily on sitcom-like repetition for its laughs, like in moments where the main character must go through a period of self-reflection or when he tries to return and redeem himself to his policing comrades, which becomes a little too similar to those awful action flicks that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are trying to mock. The film also indulges in excessive vulgarity in some instances. As amusing as it might sound, the laughter slowly subsides after witnessing a puppet vomiting for nigh three minutes, or after hearing the same gay sex jokes again and again. Crassness for the sake of being crass, where profanities replace witticisms in the case of the Kim Jong Il puppet towards the end of the film, is surprisingly dry and boring.
But aside from this, the film is bawdy and hilarious for those not too defensive about being left-leaning. In other words, if your idol is Tim Robbins for his politics and not his acting, than you might be disconcerted to see him take an NPR to the head. Or Matt Damon, who is portrayed as too stupid to say anything but his own name. And on and on. The great joy these writers take to show Michael Moore (hot dog and pizza in either hand) being blown up is only funny if you think these self-absorbed celebrities deserve it. Some critics have said the jokes stop being funny once they become too "personal." Well, they're only personal to the snobby, elitist film critics who hobnob and eat cheese regularly with these glamourpusses. That doesn't constitute 99.99% of us, so feel free to laugh without remorse.
While the film is molded in the same framework of the aforementioned formulaic drivel, Parker and Stone are always mocking the genre while sending their own message and agenda. The guys are staunch Republicans as they skewer the celebrity left, Hans Blix, Peter Jennings, etc. But they also see the excess in which Americans indulge, both at home and abroad. A heat-seeking missile that "missed the target" in a crowded Parisian marketplace means the decimation of the Eiffel Tower, and in various instances they also nail Americans' obsession with their own isolated lives and relationships, particularly in an airplane dogfight scene where the characters simultaneously discuss who is sleeping with whom while shooting down North Korean jets. It is as much a satire as it is a parody, and the film does both to equally funny effect with sing-along numbers like "'Pearl Harbor' Sucked, and I Need You."
But the puppets are the real meat of this film, and a special mention goes out to Kim Jong Il. He's a North Korean version of "South Park's" Cartmann, full of profanities, the same thirst for power, and the same whiny petulance. As a well-known lover of film (he kidnapped a Japanese director and made the poor fellow make a movie for him), Kim might be flattered with his portrayal here. His solo, "I'm So Ronery," quite frankly steals the show.
Dot the I (2003)
With all its portentous winks and nods to popular older films and flashy, gimmick-infused directing, as another wry reviewer mentioned, this is a film totally for and from a young film student. Surprisingly, director Matthew Parkhill was a British history and English schoolteacher before he made this thing. If it's any consolation, the futures of English lads are probably a little more secure now that Parkhill is out of the classroom.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, he's now behind a camera making bad movies. Heavy spoiler alert warning: Parkhill's insistence on camera motifs and crosscutting techniques might seem fitting regarding the great "twist" in the movie, but once you take away these cinematic red-herrings, you realize this twist is TOTALLY unrealistic and not set up in any other way than flimsy jump-cuts. I won't be completely rigid here; the twist is mildly surprising, but these last few minutes do not make up for what is otherwise a disaster in film-making. In fact, in this 90-minute film, the first 75 are completely irredeemable. The dialogue, for supposed improvisation, has been harvested from the cliché-fields. Lines like, "Were you the one following me?" or "This is what happens when you fall in love!" sound like they are straight from some bad faux-noir. And then there are the actors. I'll try to keep this brief: Natalia Verbeke, again for the supposed "real person," is the most unnatural in the entire film. She does little else here but look hot in a bra. Admittedly, she is truly truly hot. I don't know why the fairly talented Gael Garcia Bernal attached his name to this film, though he might know there is a rabid English-shrieking female audience just craving his hunky Latin looks, and an English-speaking role can tap him into that niche market governed by the Dicaprios and Kutchers of the Western world. Other than that, his forced accent (is it Spanish or English?) sounds like Keanu Reeves's unintentionally comical Don Juan. All the while, we get the abysmal staples of postmodern, MTV film-making: headache-inducing jittery camera, fragmented narratives, jarring elliptical edits, with some dreadful British pop rock bands and three-note ambiance chords strumming noisily and constantly in the background. By the end, it is truly impossible to believe this garbage would win any recognition at the film's Sundance mock "Indie-fest," though the sad reality is that this film indeed garnered licensing rights from some savvy business exec at Sundance intent on marketing the bejeezus out of this thing.
In other words, this film does everything wrong for nearly the entire movie and then expects you to forgive it for wasting your time by injecting some kooky literary plot twist in the final frames. I could go on, but I don't have the strength or energy for it. For those who watch this film despite the warning listed here, don't fail to succumb to your initial impulse of walking out within the first twenty minutes, as you'll save yourself the instant migraine. Good god this thing is bad.
"Sideways" has been called many things by a number of critics, so I'll try hard not to be repetitious or indulge in witticisms by comparing the strengths or weaknesses in the film to some type of wine. It's the return of the buddy flick - sure enough - smartly written, sharply acted, and though maybe a bit long, does not succumb to repetition itself. These plaudits are all true, as many others have noted, and the film's detractors have chosen to nitpick on specifics like the nondescript visual presentation or the pedestrian grouse that director/writer Alexander Payne is condescending towards his characters. The first complaint is a bit bizarre and misplaced. The romantic comedies of the forties and fifties were never subjected to such grievance because critics and the audience knew that the strength of those films lied in deft storytelling, brilliant dialogue, and natural, well-paced acting, all hallmarks exhibited in "Sideways." To note that the film has too many car shots or sun-soaked vistas is like saying Hitchcock didn't incorporate enough witty banter or flatulence jokes in "Psycho." To put it another way, if you're actually trying to figure out the details of that patio scene and how the camera is framing the whole thing instead of actually listening to Virginia Madsen and Paul Giamatti discourse beautifully about wine and themselves, then you might be missing out on the pleasures this film really displays. Concerning the second gripe, it's puzzling why any critic would consider less than flattering portrayals of characters on screen as "condescending," other than a prescribing of one's worldview over Payne's. As Henry James advised, folks, we should grant the artist his donnee and then see what he does with it before judging him or the work. If Payne's outlook isn't full of smiles and lollipops, and if his heroes aren't moral paragons, or worse, exhibit hypocritical flaws (gasp!), this shouldn't be considered an error before the execution of the work. To judge otherwise reflects more on the viewer's critical temperament than Payne's wry eye.
What Payne has accomplished here is incredible stuff that has been elucidated by many other erudite reviewers. The film is poignant but still edgy and hilarious, often moving between such opposed emotions within single scenes. It's no easy feat to do this without resorting to mawkish extremes, but Payne does it with ease, and one only witness the brilliant denouement to observe this balance of pathos and comedy exhibited so effortlessly. I'm sorry, but this is a fine film, and it shouldn't concern any of us whether it's "great" or simply "good." In an age where BAD films are awarded globular balls and golden nudes, I see nothing wrong with possibly over-praising something as good as "Sideways." Leave such trivialities of self-indulgence to well-paid, ad-supported media critics who should know better, while us amateurs can have the luxury of simply enjoying the thing.
Much more than a twist
Before there was Kurosawa, there was "Rashomon;" the Japanese master's cinematic triumph is what began to open Western audiences to his country's rich film history. Though most of the reviewers here understand the power of Kurosawa's revolutionary narrative, I think some have placed a bit too much emphasis on the surprise and plot-discovery. Though correct, the classics don't become classics unless there's something besides the occasional plot twist, and its for these other reasons that "Rashomon" will continue to endure beyond original but thematically empty works like "Memento."
Other than the traditional staples accorded to this film like the maniacal acting and gritty cinematography, "Rashomon" is quite simply a testament to the visual power of cinema. Adapted from a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the device in literature of multiple perspectives telling different versions of the same story is nothing groundbreaking; what is remarkable is Kurosawa's presentation. We aren't really ever told what happens; we SEE each and every story, and it's those obvious and not so obvious differences one must note and observe to get the entire idea. Kurosawa here was doing something extraordinary: he managed to deliver one powerful message on the darkness of the human heart through four ostensibly different narratives of the same event, but without ever providing any semblance of a corrective; it's a mystery that is unexpectedly and inexplicably - never solved, but because of the distinct characters and intensely dramatic nature of the situation, we forget this while realizing afterwards such obfuscation of a "correct" version is the very point.
"Rashomon" goes beyond the short story it is based on by delivering not just different events in each telling, but also a totally different mood via sparse music and flawless camera placement. No story ever duplicates itself in technique, and the result is essentially four separate short films tied together with one unflinching narrative thread. The themes of despair are thus delivered on several levels: the narratives, the performances, and the actual structure of the film itself. This, frankly, is something cinema can only accomplish. The glib bleakness of the thing presses upon us further and further upon every warped retelling. But perhaps Kurosawa thankfully couldn't completely stomach the hopeless nature of mankind just yet (as he would show in the unrelenting "The Lower Depths" and even "The Bad Sleep Well"). As the too-pat but ultimately uplifting ending suggests, mankind is merciless, but family life can provide shelter against the onslaught of a storm.
Lastly, like nearly all of his other films, I don't think Kurosawa was trying to deliver any existential message on the loss of truth in contemporary society here as well. The director himself said he wished this film was more timely when he accepted the Palme d'Or at Cannes. More to the point, if we consider that there is no truth, none of these characters the bandit, the aristocrat, et.al could willingly lie right? To quote another insightful reviewer on IMDb on a different Kurosawa classic, the man was a humanist, not an existentialist. Even with its tiny flaws and detractors (Pauline Kael infamously carped that the film was marred by a score that sounded like Ravel's "Bolero"), "Rashomon" is perfect enough. It's a classic, after all.
American Splendor (2003)
Look at that: Harvey Pekar and Hope Davis!
"American Splendor" was one of those films mildly recognized when it came out by some critics, and lauded to the skies by some others. The LA Film Critics gave the film a screenplay award, but when I looked again, I realized there was a "Best Picture" award attached too. These same critics have praised the thing as a masterpiece of independent film-making. Unacceptable.
For one, I have not encountered a film on this site that is not designated as a "masterpiece" by some deluded reviewer. For another, the film might hide behind the mask of independent bravura, but the casting gives it away completely. When you have the pear-shaped and balding Giamatti cast as a fairly accurate Harvey Pekar, then the same should apply for his female counterpart. But the Hollywood creators of the film couldn't bite the bullet and cast a matching unattractive female lead. Are there any actresses out there besides Meryl Streep and Kirsten Dunst who are not nor were ever pretty? The filmmakers attempt to make Hope Davis into a plain Jane by draping her in a Lily Munster wig and setting a pair of wide-rimmed spectacles on her nose. But her movie-star good looks easily scream through. Is Charleze Theron the only one in recent memory to pull off the sort of extreme physical transformation seemingly required of our Hollywood starlets these days? (as she lost it all promptly in time for the many awards ceremonies) Here's an idea: instead of making our pretty girls ugly, why not just save a lot of trouble and hire an ugly duckling who can ACT? Hope Davis is a normally fine actress, but her forced gawkiness is miscast here. There is absolutely NO resemblance between Pekar's real-life wife at the end of the film with Davis, but there are plenty of similarities between Pekar and Giamatti, so I don't want to hear that movies don't have to mimic real life since the filmmakers wanted to have it both ways here.
The acting and writing are what is usually praised about this film, but frankly the script is disgustingly exploitive and gimmicky. Pekar's insistent pessimism is so narrow and repetitive that there is absolutely nothing else shown about this character. We get the filmic version of the comic book character, only the constant one-liners and sitcom humor of comic strips don't really make for a very compelling or even watchable feature-length film. And the idea of a depressed loser isn't all that new, people. The filmmakers' and writers' doggedness in making sure Pekar does not change from his surly self one iota isn't formulaic, but the idea is horribly thin. Look at it this way: change Pekar's monochromatic crabbiness with a spunky guy who's always giddy and smiling, and you get the same, irritatingly simplistic, exaggerated, and petty version on another extreme that no critic would be calling "refreshing" or "different." The sad but thankfully upbeat reality of the matter is that Pekar bears no more resemblance to another side of the American everyman than does, say, Polyanna or Pippa resemble plausible moral uplift in ugly suburbia.
Bottom line, unless you're dealing with someone with bipolar disorder, extremes of people rarely make for realistic or compelling characters. Forgive me for this rant, as I normally wouldn't have such a problem with the idea of a depressed file clerk finding a creative outlet, but the idea that Pekar should get commended for his phony and calculated self-loathing is insulting. The guy obviously cares enough about what he has to say that he's published anthologies of his works and now has made a movie ABOUT HIMSELF. Contrast his manipulative business acumen with, say, true manic-depressives like playwright Sarah Kane who recently took her life for (or maybe from) her art, and you'll see where I'm getting at. For Pekar, there's a lot of money to be made and attention to be gained being a scratchy-voiced spokesman for the emotionally oppressed. There is zero authenticity to this guy, and maybe it fits that the character in the film is so shallow as well.
The few witticisms in the screenplay taken directly from Pekar's comic strip are no solve to the already unsalvageable mess. It's like giving a guy some Tylenol when a dog is chewing on his balls; we're not combating the source. And while Giamatti is decent, his performance is marred by the mere post-"Sideways" fact that he is capable of so much more. In "Splendor," Giamatti's excessive and exaggerated mannerisms, like scratching his head OVER and OVER (along with his jumping eyebrows), play to the exact same idea that Harvey Pekar is just a caricature, and not a character. His acting corrective can be found in Payne's "Sideways;" it's pretty much a perfect performance. In fact, just go see "Sideways," a film about REAL people living lives of REAL desperation, and skip this scheming dreck.
The Incredibles (2004)
Flashy, but pretty ho-hum
When one walks into a Pixar film, one can usually expect the sort of quirky animated cleverness that the studio has become known for in such imaginative fare like "Toy Story 2," "A Bug's Life," and "Finding Nemo." In those films, Pixar re-imagines and reconfigures the established. Sharks undergoing therapy for cannibalism, or an ant committing suicide by walking into a drop of water, are creative re-workings of what we see and dismiss everyday. It takes creative minds to come up with such amusing alternatives to what would normally not elicit a second glance from all of us, and most importantly, it is possible and most plausible only in the world of animation where talking fishes and bugs do not seem totally ridiculous.
Such imagination is absent with their newest feature, "The Incredibles." This movie's creative insight is that, well, superheroes really CAN have mundane lives. The film is visually gorgeous but thematically empty, a merely average film that has been raised to celestial levels for what many have labeled its animated "realism," I'm guessing what most critics apocryphally mean when they notice shimmering wet hair or fluid body movements. Well, mimicking humans is not trailblazing Pixar's territory, but belongs first to the Squaresoft Pictures flop, "Final Fantasy: Spirits Within." The second one is a terrible film as most over-inflated, sci-fi anime can be, but "The Incredibles" has escaped such criticism largely due to critics falling in love with its pastel color scheme and its fidelity to cartoonish humans with real features (like said hair) amidst an environ of real water, fire, trees, etc. If making everything appear so "real" was the goal, why not just shoot a live-action film with CGI superimposed and save us all the time, money, and lavish plaudits?
The fact is were it not for the CGI, this film's reportedly high-minded drama would not garner any year-end awards. As some other reviewers have pointed out, it's as cliché-ridden as can be, even falling upon the sitcom-like contrived plots such as a series of coincidences making a wife believe her husband is cheating on her, or the nerdy girl not fitting in with the cool crop at school, only to fit in and receive invitations from the future prom king at the end (the creators could have taken a lesson from this year's anti-conformity "Napoleon Dynamite"). Most Pixar plots have been fairly simple with good messages, but what livens up nearly every story they have told are new takes on the humdrum. Turtles turned into stoner surfers in "Finding Nemo," for example, while "A Bug's Life" is teeming with new versions of a collection of insects. The Incredible family's superpowers are supposed to substitute for this lack of creative imagination, but the abilities are not inventive themselves. Super strength, flexibility, speed, invisibility are all brilliantly conceived, but as wonders lack variety to the eye, and since the Incredibles' world is modeled on the human world, there is also no escape into the beautiful rendering of the ocean or of a blown-up microcosm like in other Pixar features. As hard as it may seem to imagine, this movie more than any other Pixar film could have been filmed in live-action, a cardinal no-no suggestion for any animated flick.
The decision to make the film a drama devoid of humor is also not a wise one; scenes that would normally be infused by amusing side-characters are filled with sidekicks there only to advance the plot. Edna as a creation, for instance, is mildly amusing but is a simple caricature of Bond movies and fashion designers, supplying useful gadgets but lacking the imagination of a true creation (and not parody) of a Mr. Potato Head or Heimlich caterpillar. Jokes are not as edgy and wry as a result, and while its insistence on a conservative moral might be fresh in today's left-Hollywood climate (i.e. Manchurian Candidate, Spartan), its beaten to the ground ad-nauseum by every character who gets a turn at dictating it to the audience.
"The Incredibles" is not a terrible movie. Though uninspired, it's still technically marvelous animation. The story is initially amusing in points. The kitchen-sink drama is actually brutally honest, depicting family life (albeit superhero family life) at its most stultifying and completely routine, something very far from a traditionalist conservative message. There are even some good action scenes, especially when the speedy son discovers the true extent of his own superpowers. But maybe it's all that CGI, or a lack of original story, that made me consider "The Incredibles" more of a video game by its end rather than a feature film. The final boss battle could be straight from a platformer or role-playing game with one party of five unleashing attacks on one mechanical robot replete with attack points and weaknesses. By the final accounts, "The Incredibles" is really a very average movie, but has the potential to be an excellent video game. Take it from someone who plays them.
Dare mo shiranai (2004)
A quiescent, drawn-out beauty
Kore-eda's newest feature continues in the same vein as his other unhurried and placid works. His characters are caught in a state of flux, between transitionary moments, exemplified perfectly in his serene and incredibly original film, "After Life." Other reviewers have frequently mentioned that film as a note of comparison, but really "Nobody Knows" hearkens back further in the director's career to his sublime and visually intoxicating "Maboroshi," about a widow coping with the sudden death of her spouse. Kore-eda is in his comfort zone here, capturing moments of transcendental beauty in the quotidian. What makes Kore-eda such a gifted artist behind the lens, and one of the more important active filmmakers, is his ability to linger on such moments a stain of nail polish on a hardwood floor or a static shot of a playground in the rain while making such snapshots appear fleeting. Different shot after shot appears briefly, he lets us soak it in, and then it's gone. Perhaps no other director working today can capture the natural beauty around us, and transfigure that sublimity so effortlessly in single flashes.
Of course, like some other reviewers on this site have mentioned, nearly two and a half hours of hot flashes is tiring and demands something else to alleviate it from monotony. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson on "Paradise Lost," no one would wish this thing ran any longer. It's all good to tell a story visually, and nothing wrong for a film to run long if it can sustain it, but each "moment" captures the same feelings over and over again i.e. loneliness, longing, and despair, or what is essentially the struggle to overcome desperation. With a story of such linear decline, then, there is little else besides all the same emotions washing over us until one is totally subsumed in bleak numbness. When there is a break, like a baseball game, the result is more absurd Beat Takeshi irony than serene Kore-eda sobriety. While each shot might be different here, since we know the plot can only really head in one direction, Kore-eda's latest then suffers from too long a running time to sustain the unchanging essence of his film. The repetitive tone and tempo might be the point, sure, but is rather pointless when the ideas are all the same.
This chief fault keeps this film from becoming a mark on the director's canon, but "Nobody Knows" is still filled with those pretty important ideas. As some critics have pointed out, the film is mitigated by a sense of anger that this was in fact a real-life event, but Kore-eda's treatment is what distinguishes his piece from an enraged social tract like, say, Paul Greengrass's "Bloody Sunday." Despite this sense of anger (Kore-eda has said in interviews that his parents were largely absent in his youth as well) the film is nearly absent of sentimentality (nearly, except for the ending). A Japanese obsession with cuteness still remains, but the film is thankfully more realistic in portraying emotions; the kids look at their misfortunes with a level eye, and the protagonist Akira snaps at his siblings from frustration on a couple occasions. This might be a good spot to mention the excellent job by Yuya Yagira, who's bravura and remarkably detailed physical performance (really extraordinary for his age) here might mean he's Japan's coming of Haley Joel. His real variety in emotion is a welcome contrast, as such sweet monochromatism is too often a problem concerning films that deal with children in bleak circumstances (Isao Takahata's consistently, cloyingly sweet lead characters in "Grave of the Fireflies" come quickly to mind).
Kore-eda's insistence that his characters remain pure and unsullied is another reason why this film on innocence betrayed is made more poignant. He illustrates this loss with images, but through what is not shown as well. Despite the fact that the family owns a television but not once watches it, for example. He concedes video games to Akira and his friends, but Kore-eda's emphasis is clearly on the organicism of youth and the desire that all kids deep down would rather engage in painting or botany than watch the boob tube. It's the adults in this world who are selfish, and yet through their negligence are only too willing to shuffle off these kids to that same self-importance. But nobody knows, or nobody will know, or nobody wants to know; to do so would be to stick out one's neck for someone and stop smothering the pet dog. Undoubtedly a bit unfair, but effectively presented nonetheless.
In other words, this isn't some art-house Ken Loach social tract; Kore-eda makes sure his ideas are all right there, but he doesn't pretentiously spell them out. The audience needs to work, even if the length of the film ensures that they'll be putting in some unnecessary overtime.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
The Audience Suicides
Everything about Sophia Coppola's debut film here tries to scream small, or maybe that should be whimper loud because Coppola's everything-but-subtle direction pretty much drives the film's shallow meaning into you, while she then proceeds to back up her empty dump truck over you repeatedly. Awful analogy, I know, but so is this portentous moral lesson in self-congratulation. This probably can't be helped,and it really isn't all Coppola's fault. After all, the book the film is based on is by none other than that moral relativist Jeffrey Eugenides, a writer the LA Times has described as a "great American writer that we all suspected of being." I didn't get the memo, but what do I know?
"The Virgin Suicides" is about a group of strange sisters, led by the extremely effervescent, or ditzy, Kirsten Dunst, who are held to scrupulous moral standards by their oppressive and conservative parents (played by an ancient-looking Kathleen Turner and a tranquilized James Woods). Dunst is met with stagnation when she wants to go to a dance, or date boys, or fawn over Josh Hartnett, who here dons a long, Kurt Cobain-like hairdo in an attempt to give him more bad-boy gravitas, but the result is just a girlier-looking version of Hartnett himself. Long story short, the girls end up committing suicide by the end of film because of the stymieing influence of their overly conservative parents. Don't worry, I'm not ruining anything; they say this much in the beginning of the movie. You see this easy plot conclusion coming after the first 20 minutes. And it's also the title.
This movie isn't the "thinker" everyone has made it out to be. For one, it's a movie ENTIRELY about Kirsten Dunst. Her fellow sisters might have been developed more in Eugenides' novel, but here I challenge a person to find any distinction between the other morose, sad-sack sisters. Think I'm kidding? Count the close-ups of Kirsten, count the number of times there are slow-motion shots of Kirsten running or jumping or some other physical activity, and then include the number of lines Kirsten gets over anyone else in the film. I would say it's about the same number as the film's running time: 96 minutes that stretch. Dunst has a fantastic body and some charisma I admit, but I still contend she's just too homely to keep carrying these goddess-whom-all-the-boys-drool-over roles (see "Spiderman," "The Cat's Meow"). She has a lazy eye, for one, and her razor-thin lips have a pursed, sneering granny look to it. I'm sorry, but there it is. Here, she is the oldest looking 14-year old you will ever see.
While the film is also tauted as being "indie," the designation isn't quite appropriate when the acting relies on the young star-power of Hartnett and Dunst. Now concentrating on one character itself isn't necessarily a fault, but when the story is so small and trivial you kind of need some more substance to the film. Critics have stated the film is "challenging," and I suppose it is to some backwards dweller in a mythological hick town. In the real world, there is no conflict of views here because the sisters are the rebellious, sympathetic martyrs and the parents are the oppressive, empty tyrants. We, on the other hand, are the obviously more educated and tolerant beings observing on the outside while smirking to and nudging our fellow enlightened ones, right? It's "Cuckoo's Nest" minus the great acting and pacing. Or even a rehash of that other movie that solves its moral problems for you, "Dead Poet's Society." And that's all there is, save for the Wes Anderson-like random bits of welcome quirkiness that save the movie from complete oblivion. Those who've criticized the boys' ogling over the mysterious girls might have missed the one clever idea Coppola has extracted from the story; boys who innocently know nothing can ergo fantasize over what they know nothing about.
But in the end, the film could've used some of that brilliant subtext that could be found in "Lost in Translation." Coppola wants to make the message and moods of her films painfully clear. In this film, there is no more evidence of this fact when you hear Dunst complaining to her mother that "she can't breathe" from being trapped in her house. Yes, we get it, thanks for reminding us, being stuck in a house with James Woods is tough stuff. So is, I suppose, a review so needlessly long for a movie so short on ideas.
'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)
Powell and Pressburger at their finest
This wonderfully charming film from the Powell and Pressburger team is probably their most underrated great work: the most recent "Sight and Sound Critics Poll" of British films didn't even include this gem in the top 100. If it means anything, "Trainspotting" was in the top 10.
What elevates the film beyond other light-hearted romances is chiefly the impeccable acting and tight screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, probably the greatest English screenwriter to have ever lived. This might be generic laudation to any film, but by no means is Wendy Hiller's performance generic. As the young gold-digger-type woman, Hiller is slightly bewildered at being sidetracked to the Scottish natives, but she is much more fluxed when she realizes she is falling for a common Scotsman, and not the rich lord she envisioned. So what is the reaction to this bafflement? A fierce sense of panic that is very honest in its depiction of desperation. It might be puzzling to the viewer why our heroine should seek royalty so vehemently, but because of Hiller's expert frenzied facial tics, we see her slowly realize her ridiculousness herself. In an age where critics desire constant plausibility and "believability" in romances, Pressburger reminds us that attraction is something that can largely be out of our control. Hiller's character, an obsessive control freak, is the perfect example of one who cannot comprehend this fact.
The perfect foil for Hiller's hysteria, of course, is Rover Livesey's soft-spoken Torquil Macneil. Before Ashton Kucher-like effete twigs came to dominate on-screen masculinity (or Vin Diesel-like muscle-studded goons on the other extreme), the quiet dignity and charisma of a man like Livesey could light up a screen without any histrionics or wrestling moves. Those still looking for romantic realism will recognize that like Hiller's character, Livesey is just as strong-willed, and more importantly, is a match in wits and a counterbalance in earnest, world-weary personality. Their mutual attraction is perfectly played out in the strangely electric silences as much as the dialogue.
But the performances enhance what is already a remarkable script. The very basic premise of the love story can be read by many other astute reviewers on this website who also see the merits of this film. Powell and Pressburger have always been smart enough to embed their love stories with some heavy ideas: in "The Red Shoes," it was love vs. art; in "I Know Where I'm Going!" it is love vs. money. Sounds simple enough, but unlike other romances, these filmmakers can glean insights on the definition of poverty. While primitive (the one phone in town is at the post office) and poor (the staff in charge there can't break change for a pound), the villagers are portrayed affectionately with class, dignity, and culture, especially in a wonderful dance scene that seems to affectionately embody both a small community's close familiarity with one another, as well as the drunken festival spirit. Like Livesey's character says at one point in the film, "They aren't poor, they just haven't got any money." It's a succinct but revealing statement about the human condition in a time where money did not necessarily determine one's social class because of many other admirable factors. Contrast this cultural milieu with a film like "8 Mile," in which the characters are "real" if they are from the "streets" or living with trailer trash parents, and "phony" if they have an education from a private school, and you can see how our self-important attitudes are progressing.
Lastly, I must mention that this is one of the most exquisitely photographed black and white films I have ever seen, and the Criterion remastering does the film ample justice. I have been harping on the merits of the high-mindedness of Pressburger, but the appropriate plaudits must be dealt for Powell's emotionally expressive vistas that equal his achievements in "The Edge of the World." From the craggy peaks of the highest cliffs or the frothy waves of every bank, the film's mystic sense of ambiance is drawn by a foggy mist that pervades most scenes. For once, grand scenery doesn't dwarf the characters; every picturesque shot either captures the characters in the beauty of the element, or is intended as a complement to the characters' emotions. It's a great film.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
A small, sweet masterpiece
Jarmusch was never much of a guy to dip in the mainstream; "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai" is about as Hollywood as you're going to get from him. His recent "Coffee and Cigarettes" might have alluded to his roots as an indie filmmaker, but its stories are monochromatic and offer little emotional variety save for the Albert Molina vignette. His best film might be this one, a miniature masterpiece that is underrated when compared to his other stuff. The basic premise of the film revolves around a New York immigrant from Eastern Europe, his goofy buddy, and his female cousin who comes to visit him and America as they jump from state to state.
There isn't much of a plot for sure, but Jarmusch more than compensates for this fact by creating three distinct characters that manage to be sweet without resorting to cheap sentiment. These guys might be rude and frivolous at times, but they never lose their sense of embarrassed compassion, nor as a direct result their humanity as complete characters as well. There's a morose wit to all of these proceedings. All three actors truly seem to have a playful camaraderie, working the motions of a natural friendship with Jarmusch's direction that shows them at their happiest only to be disappointed again and again, like a kid getting clothes instead of video games at Christmas once more. This honest and easygoing subtext doesn't include undemanding Hollywood moments of syrupy tenderness or mawkish emotion. For once, the clichéd adage of characters writing themselves is probably true here, as the film has an almost improvised quality to it. Jarmusch gets the careful balance between static ugliness and a subtext of natural warmth just right.
While the great heart of this film lies in its characterization, it's catapulted into greatness because of Jarmusch's quiet touch. In nearly every one of his films the director is obsessed with the awkward silences that make up nearly every relationship. He's much more revealing with the silences here, fleshing out character development in a car ride or while staring out at the blankness of snowy Cleveland. This brings me to my final point that Jarmusch again does with intelligence. When the characters move from city to city, they have a passionate belief that what they will find is something unbelievable. But the New York we see is a bunch of back alleys and graffiti. Cleveland is a blank white expanse, strangely vapid as opposed to pictorial. And Florida has to be the ugliest Florida ever depicted on screen, consisting mainly of a "Welcome to Florida" sign and a decrepit motel. While the main message is that life is often full of disappointments, that life is rarely full of transcendent moments, people can still connect with each other regardless of their surrounding environments. It's Jarmusch's best statement yet, and it's for these reasons this one must be seen even before even his fine "Mystery Train." The film, essentially a three-character comedy, is also thankfully kept brief, becoming genuinely meaningful and moving as a result.