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Happy Feet (2006)
A Secret Alien Plot?
I could almost give this movie a ten - the animation detail on those exquisite penguins is mind-blowing - except for the bizarre ending. They seemed to be saying that if the talented, oppressed minorities would just submit to being tagged with electric boxes and singing for their supper to the Alien Aryan oppressors, they would be allowed to survive. Shades of early Hollywood's treatment of some of the fine Asian, African American, and Latino performers who were never given proper credit for their consummate skill and humanity - only for their entertainment value to mainstream America.
This is one of the most surreal child movie endings I think I have ever seen on film, and I'm really not sure if I can even come up with a logic for why they chose it. To make such a point of demonstrating how awful the imprisonment at the zoo is, and then expecting me to cheer when our young dancing penguin protagonist appears, fully wired, to make his fellow species accept the inevitable, is so sci-fi to me that I began to think I had wandered into an elaborate modern Twilight Zone episode. I suppose the idea was that technology has given humans the ability to observe animals to such a degree that we can actually have empathy for them, yet all I see from the plot leading up to this conclusion is that technology - ie. the plastic beer can holder strangling the charismatic spiritual leader - is that technology is the brutal oppressor of all things good and great and natural.
I hate message films that contradict themselves at every turn, but I love great computer animation, so I am giving this a much higher rating than I feel the strangely convoluted, fake unity message merits. I also think the little ones will be so happy from the song-and-dance cuteness of it all that what I think makes not a whit of difference. Also kudos to giving a truly great tap artist, Sabian Glover, some very deserved screen time. Next time I hope to see the actual Sabian and his buddies on screen - so we can see what the real artistic fuss is all about. Fun to about three quarters of the way in, and a bit long for a kid flick, but definitely great, heartfelt animation art.
The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
I am coming out fighting here because this film was so well shot and so well cast that I am twice as angry about its de-evolution than I would have been with a lesser work. Without revealing too much of the plot, I can only say that part one of my 2 VHS set was an unnerving, unfolding delight of bizarre but plausible plot developments. The lead character was suitably naif-like but also intelligent and very very open. The events that he is rapidly forced to come to terms with are the separation of his parents, the culture shock when his Pakistani roots collide with a complete breakdown of English straitlaced society in the sixties, his father's dubious transformation into the revered Buddha of Suburbia, and the turning of his cousin into a feminist militant as his best friend suddenly becomes an icon of the burgeoning punk movement in the seventies. Among other things.
What made me so angry was the amount of detailed work each actor put into creating and establishing their characters in the first part, only to have the whole thing devolve into very bad porn episodes in the second part, far too many to justify plot development, and far too explicit to even seem erotic. My biggest pet peeve is when directors let their private fetishes interfere with the truth of their movie, and this to me was a supreme example.
I felt a bit like I'd been invited to a party of very clever, funny strangers, only to have the doors locked and the guests not allowed to interact, and all of us forced to watch bad seventies sexploitation films instead. What an insult to the hard work of these amazing actors! Why not just make a cheeseball flick to begin with? And why cast a great lead character who can actually act, and then cut away from him whenever he is building up to a great performance? I almost felt as if he too was growing tired of the endless sex scenes where all he did was lie there pumping his pelvis for yet another breathy naked actress.
Bottom line - Part One is minor genius, Part Two is second tier soap opera perversion. I know the book is quite explicit, but I felt that these fine actors were as exploited in real life as their characters were in the movie, and it made me quite angry and very uncomfortable. Only John Waters can pull off such a dubious degrading of actors and plot and have it seem artistic. My suggestion is to only watch the first part, toss the second in the proverbial rubbish heap, and you will love the Buddha forever. Score A+F=0
Le bal (1983)
Shall We Dance?
A movie that carves its own niche in film history in the most delicate, ephemeral way imaginable. The cast is among the finest ensemble gatherings I have ever seen, and the combined efforts of all concerned seems to add up to far more than seems possible for what is basically a silent film. It reminds me a bit of the magical transformation Altman managed to create on the set of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as if all the actors were put under the same spell, and responded to the challenge with a uniform brilliance.
The camera work in Le Bal is just as nuanced and evolved as the work of the actors, but it never feels forced or artificial. All of the actors I have seen in many other films, and they seem so much more self-aware than many of the actors you see in the states. There is a feeling from this film as if the actors themselves created it, for which the director deserves my highest praise. And the subtle way the film morphs from black and white to a hand tinted look to modern color throughout is also so masterful that you almost don't notice it.
This is NOT A FILM FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIKE DANCING!!! It is a film for people who like to watch an exquisite evolutionary process. I liken it to an orchid, in that you learn a special kind of patience from waiting for it to bloom, but the blooms are always worth the wait, and last in the mind forever. I pray that a behind the scenes DVD will be released soon, as do many others, and recommend this highly.
Nurse Betty (2000)
A near hit or a near miss?
Hard to categorize this movie, but many things come to mind. My boyfriend described it as Blue Velvet filmed by the Farrelly brothers and I think that is an excellent description. My problem with this film is that it sets up its premise so exquisitely in the beginning - Renee Zellweger trapped in a waitressing job that she can actually do in her sleep, who watches her favorite soap so zealously that she can pour coffee while staring at the screen.
As we follow her around in a day we begin to realize how desperately she is trying to keep going by losing herself in a false positivity sustained by soap opera platitudes, but that these are becoming increasingly more difficult to apply to her sad life and bad marriage. As she soldiers on through the day, more and more things unravel around her, so that by the time she witnesses the brutal murder of her husband, she is completely consumed by her imaginary world.
Up to this point, Zellweger balances the tension of her delusional positivity with a buried sadness that is so delicate, when it comes out every once in a while, it is heartbreaking to see. Then LaBute just abandons ship with her and launches into a road trip movie that loses all dramatic tension by creating extremely cartoonish interactions and characterizations that do not come into balance again until Bette meets up with her soap opera star at a charity event.
The scene where Bette introduces herself to the writer and some of the cast of the soap opera "A Reason to Love" is one of the best balancing acts of conflicting views of reality I have ever seen on screen. But once again LaBute abandons Bette to one-dimensionality so he can rush over to the Grand Canyon for yet another badly written scene where Morgan Freeman is trying to have a conscience and Chris Rock is just trying to get the job done.
The point at which I got anything out of their interaction with each other was the point at which Chris Rock decided to stop "acting" and just start doing his foul-mouthed comedy routine. Finally there seemed to be some spark and life to their relationship, and the road trip aspect started to pick up for me.
I feel like Mr. LaBute is very good at theatrical manipulation of audience expectation, but not so adept at filmic flow and continuity. I am glad he exists, and the film was very interesting and very watchable, but I think he still has a lot to learn about how to create and sustain a convincing oddball reality throughout the duration of a feature length film.
You can't have intermissions in a modern movie theatre, but I felt as if there were intermissions in this film, that plot lines would ebb and flow like tides until each character was plucked out of the group and given meaning. Perhaps this would have been best done as a play first, and then the ensemble cast rounded up to do the film. I was underwhelmed by the artistry but entertained by the quirky story, so I think I will just leave it up to other viewers to determine - is the film half-empty, or half-full?
The Front Page (1931)
A+ A visionary masterpiece!!!
The camera-work on this underrated beauty is breathtaking - one of the panning shots in the newsroom precedes Woody Allen's restaurant pan shot in Hannah and Her Sisters by over half a century! It is so organic, yet so breezy and alive. Don't miss the clever panning action with the gun sequence, and the mirrored room with the man getting off the elevator, which is also a throw-away gem. The actors are some of the finest character and bit players ever assembled on screen and the lightning dialog and clever editing is really quite modern in its speed and ingenuity.
I too am a devoted fan of His Girl Friday, but these are two very different films. Front Page is a masterpiece of old school ensemble character acting, and without it to break new ground, I don't believe His Girl Friday would have had nearly the breakneck pacing and out of the bottle genius that it is rightfully remembered for. The Front Page should take an esteemed place in film history for being the fertile breeding ground of screwball comedy in general and many of its masterpieces, including His Girl Friday, in particular. A must see for 1930's film buffs and screwball comedy fanatics!
The Holcroft Covenant (1985)
The secret shame of Michael Caine
As an avowed life-long fan of Mr. Caine, and a true fanatic for The Manchurian Candidate, I was willing to give this whole miserable mess a bit of slack, until I got about twenty minutes into another scene w/ Mr. Caine as Mr. Holcroft loudly reminding us of his character's seemingly endless stupidity. (Michael Caine as a noisy simpleton? Give me a big, fat Nazi break! Not even Michael Caine is that good of an actor.)
The idea that life in a Nazi thriller unfolds like a Pink Panther sequel without punchlines is too difficult to swallow. Some of the scenes actually seem to me as if they were outtakes or lighting checks that ended up in the final edit by accident. I don't think I would care so much except that it is my beloved Michael Caine I am talking about here. The screenwriter should have been shot instead of this movie. The whole thing would have been more successful and excusable as a light comedy starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Holcroft, neatly missing numerous assassination attempts while managing to solve the entire mystery purely by accident.
The queasy merger of bad 80's costumes and completely uninspired cinematography is the only conspiracy worth noting in this absurd waste of talent and money. I think the whole awful eighties cocaine craze was rampant on this movie set, and that no-one could tell a terrible script from a silver spoon by the time the whole thing got into production. I agree with the earlier reviewer - save this for a Worst Films Night with some good friends after a few stiff drinks are had by all, and hope no friendships are ruined in the process.