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From the very beginning of "Man of Steel," in which we see a mother
suffer through the agonies and processes of childbirth, the director,
Zack Snyder, has declared war on our senses. He opens his picture with
a series of clumsily staged and frequently out-of-focus shots while the
Foley flares up to the point where the theater speakers sound as though
they might explode. I never imagined I would see a superhero picture
(let alone one starring the Man of Steel himself, Superman) that opened
with a screaming woman and an infant dripping with amniotic fluid. But
alas, this extremely discomforting and frankly weird sequence sets the
mood for the entire 143 minutes that ensues. For this new Superman is
one of the most visually aggressive and unpleasantly loud movies of the
There is some minimal comfort: we're not the only ones subjected to director Snyder's assault. Throughout the picture, anything and everything that can demolished or bruised or beaten in any sort of way receives a grueling fate. Entire rows of cars go up in flames; skyscrapers pummel to the ground; windows are popped into thousands of shards one after another; and the occasional human neck is snapped like a dry twig. Snyder not only directs every single sequence in a fast-moving, relentless manner (with the camera lenses pushed in much too far), but he does not allow for any breather space. As soon as one object (or person) has been obliterated, something else is sent off to join it. It is nonstop noise. Everything is noisy; even the tapping of a pencil on a desk brim rattles the soundtrack. Let's also take note that Superman no longer takes off and glides before picking up speed. Now he launches from the ground with all the earsplitting frequency and velocity of a space-bound rocket. And that's simply ignoring the trombone-heavy score by Hans Zimmer, which is excellent enough on its own terms, but pushed up in volume too high by the sound editors, so that it seems to bleed through all of the explosions and screaming and collisions that are already assailing our ears.
So, what is the point behind all this? Even though Snyder directed "Man of Steel," the dominant artist involved in terms of storytelling and mood is the producer, Christopher Nolan, who made the three recent Batman pictures. Those movies (two of which I hold with immense respect and admiration) successfully transformed the Caped Crusader from a dork in a bat suit into an interesting and oddly fascinating character even with that silly and not-scary voice. Nolan's Batman went from silly to serious, and now he appears to be trying the same with Superman.
But here is the problem. Out of all of the superhero characters, Batman is the one you can afford to take dead-serious, because he's the one who is grounded closest to reality; he's flesh-and-blood; he's human and mortal in every way, except in his legacy and image. When dealing with a figure like Superman, who hails from an alien planet and can spew lobotomizing, crimson beams from his eyes, there needs to be some room for science-fiction wonder and spectacle.
You also, given his origins, need to evoke a human side. And here is where both Nolan and Snyder have utterly failed with their film. The alter-ego of Clark Kent is absolutely essential for the Superman character, because in that personae, he brings something credible to the table, something you can relate to and identify with. In "Man of Steel," we have to wait until the last half-dozen shots to see him don those awkward glasses and stuttering demeanor. Because of this, since he spends the rest of the movie in his impersonal, alien mode, this new Superman is nothing more than a brooding outsider. I usually refrain from comparing entries in a movie-franchise, but if I may say so, the alter-ego dynamic was what made the original "Superman: The Movie" from 1978 such a smashing success. As played by Christopher Reeve, the character spent most of his time in disguise, putting on an act, but still involving us in the story. And that's why there was such wonderful chemistry between Reeve (who in my mind, will always be Superman) and Margot Kidder as the feisty, go-getting reporter.
This is no condemnation of either Henry Cavill, as Superman, or Amy Adams, as the reporter, in "Man of Steel." Their biggest foes are not the alien invaders (whose ships resemble something out of the "Star Gate" television series), but the utterly bland characters thrown in their laps. With this script, Cavill is bland and impersonal. We never get any real chance to understand him as a character, because, again, the movie is constantly forcing him to go into muscle-man mode, saving people from exploding oil rigs and sinking school buses. The only time he shows any sign of a human side is during the film's one truly spell-binding scene where Superman discovers his ability to fly. When he first takes off, Cavill begins to laugh, tickled at his own ability, like a child. And it is only here that the movie allows any significant stretch of time for the material to develop and enhance and for the meanings to resonate with us. Before and after this point, it just goes on, banging away to no apparent end. And just when things seem to quiet down lo and behold! a satellite falls out of the sky, and the over-pumped Foley rattles our ears. No matter all the talent put before and behind the camera, "Man of Steel" is not much more than a big, impersonal bore.
Oh, and as for the love story. Forget about it. Not even Amy Adams, one of the most magnetic of actresses working today, can bring emotional life to this supposedly serious story.
Not since the dismal "AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator Requiem" back in 2007
has a movie's cinematography frustrated and angered me as much as the
nonstop barrage of heavy shadows, scribble-like silhouettes, and runny
blue tints to be found in "A Good Day to Die Hard." This is one of
those movies where every scene, even those in broad daylight, appears
to be dark and dreary, as though somebody had placed a fine strip of
blue plastic wrap over the camera lenses. Now, granted, dark
cinematography is rather commonplace in movies such as thisbecause it
helps guise the faults and lapses in both special effects and stunt
workbut the results here are absurdly amateurish. As I sat watching
this movie for what seemed like a really long time (but in fact was a
brisk 98 minutes), I couldn't help but wonder if the director of
photography, Jonathan Sela, had never heard of three-point lighting or
Very frequently, characters disappear or blend in with their shadow-drenched surroundings; and, when night falls upon them, the brightest thing on the screen is the sweat gleaming to Bruce Willis's forehead. When it comes to evening-set sequences, Sela seems to have a fetish with backlighting and silhouettes and no concern at all with brightening up the part of the actors and sets that are nearest to us. Nothing, not even a uranium-enhanced grenade or a rising sun, can brighten this film's imagery.
I can safely theorize that the director of this film, John Moore, has a place in action-filmmaking. I really enjoyed his tactic of, for his opening, having us hear the sounds of a riot without seeing anythingthe one time, I think, where we were intended not to see anything. As demonstrated in an early car chase scene (the one where we can adequately see what is happening), he demonstrates a wicked instinct for staging his camera and not relying on claustrophobic close- ups to the point where it becomes nauseating. When a car flips and tumbles around on the Moscow highways (and it happens numerous times in this particular scene), Moore's cameras toggle back and forth, showing us the event from multiple anglesmaybe a little too much, as though Moore set up so many cameras for fearing of one missing the action, and then feeling obliged to show everybody's resultsand it is quite exciting.
However, the fun stops right there. One of the key definitions to a strong action movie is the ability to absorb the audience in the narrative...even if the said narrative makes little to no sense. I probably don't need to mention this, but "A Good Day to Die Hard" is merely the latest in a long series of movies and, two sequels before, the movie "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" used a plot that also made little sense. But the screenplay wisely paced itself at a quick yet satisfying rhythm so the audience didn't have too much time to think about plausibility and just enjoy the spectacle and the mind games. For this fifth adventure, in which poor Bruce Willis once again winds up throwing himself around bullet-strewn architecture, the logic flies around with little redeeming entertainment value. Had the storytellers swamped me under their own terms, I wouldn't have minded if the hero and his high-strung CIA agent of a son could throw themselves through a high-rise window, knowing there was a pulpit for them to land on, knowing that the board they broke through would lead to a tunnel that would take them safely to ground level.
As much as I disliked "A Good Day to Die Hard," I cannot pass it off as meritless. For one thing, Willis still possesses a screen-commanding presence and style, even if his character has diminished into a soulless, impersonal fighting machine. As his son, Jai Courtney also displays a certain level of on-screen confidence. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also in the picture, though only for the prologue and epilogue, and once again, did not fail to charm me. I've already talked about director Moore's prospects for future, better projects. And finally, I really do wish to grant credit to the composer for the music score. Veteran maestro Marco Beltrami's instruments and conduction do elevate some of the movie's lackluster scenes. So, at moments, I didn't mind so much that I couldn't see anything on the screen, for the music made for an excellent listening experience. He also plays it smart by only reusing a few moments of Michael Kamen's repeating score from the original 1988 film.
One footnote: those expecting to hear the Ode to Joy come into play again, prepare for yet another thunderously disappointing aspect.
I'd intended to see "A Good Day to Die Hard" on its debut last Valentine's Day. That night, however, a blizzard swept over and froze the engine of my car to a sputtering stop. I wound up holding off on seeing the picture, and now, in hindsight, I'm rather glad I did. Seeing a big disappointment on the big screen, having invested a fair few dollars into it, would have only made matters worse. As much as I would love to proclaim affection for this picture, I must glumly report that "A Good Day to Die Hard" has finally spun into the realms where I thought the Die Hard series would never go: immense boredom.
Even though it is not, in totality, a great film, Ishiro Honda's "The
H-Man" (or "Beauty and the Liquid People" as it was named in its own
country) has some remarkable things in it. The cast is a harvest of
reliable acting talents; the movie features some tremendously effective
special effects; and the photography is luscious and rich with color.
What is most remarkable about "The H-Man," however, is the way it
combines two radically different genres, and yet gives each genre its
due and moments to shine. If the movie were just a horror story or just
a yakuza melodrama, it still would have been an interesting picture.
And once combined, they form one of Toho's most intriguing, if uneven,
efforts to date.
We also get Honda's usual symbolism, once again on the atomic bomb. And once again, as in "Mothra," it is applied in a rather subtle manner. Honda opens the movie with an eye-popping, wholly unexpected nuclear explosion and then shies away from talking about his message for quite a spell. The eponymous H-Men, a race of liquid organisms that can take the shape of humans and dissolve any living thing they come into contact with, are supposedly an aftereffect from nuclear testing in the South Pacific. When they disintegrate a person, leaving nothing but their clothes behind, the area is teeming with radiation. But Honda does not take the cheap shot; he does not drag out his story with chatter and contemplation about man messing with the balance of the world. His only lapse is at the end, when he allows Takashi Kimura's screenplay to blabber, via an unimportant supporting character, about how man should stop tinkering with nuclear energy, else let the H-Men take over in the future. Here, the allegory comes on a bit thick, and the end monologue does not come across as hauntingly fresh as it was in "Godzilla," but instead, on the pretentious side.
For the most part, however, both Honda and Kimura allow the double-edged plot to take center-stage. It's a combination I very much enjoyed, particularly the half about the Japanese gangsters and the police department's attempts to drag them into the gutter. There are some terrific character actors in the film's police force, including Akihiko Hirata, Yoshio Tsuchiya and Eitaro Ozawa. Now granted, the policemen are not developed as really anything but policemen straight-shooters who seldom smile and scoff at the suggestion that liquid-men are running amok in Tokyo but the actors breathe such life into them, as to make them interesting. Take Yoshifumi Tajima, for instance. He plays the most skeptic cop you could ask for no real depth of character and yet when he winds up being killed by one of the monsters, I actually felt a bit down. I liked that character, or at least Tajima's interpretation of that character.
If only there was more life put into the love story. And this is what I think disqualifies "The H-Man" from being a truly great film. The movie would like us to care about the couple (a yakuza's moll and a daring young scientist trying to warn the cops of the impending danger), but the emotional involvements adds up to zero. This is not a reflection on the two performers. Kenji Sahara and Yumi Shirakawa are superb talents and even proved two years before, in Honda's better film "Rodan," that they can effectively play lovers on film. But "Rodan" gave them things to do together, moments to shine in each other's company. The screenplay of "The H-Man" asks us to believe in their chemistry after they meet very briefly, pass a few insignificant words, and when Shirakawa sobs into Sahara's shoulder. I really wanted more meaningful scenes between them.
Shirakawa, on the other hand, does run away with the show, and she does have the best-rounded character. From the get-go, we like this soft-eyed, confused girl, and we sympathize with her when both rival gangsters and skeptical detectives refuse to quit hounding her. And at the end, when a snarling gangster starts dragging her through the sewers of Tokyo, all the while getting themselves surrounded by liquid-men, I felt myself really worrying about what would become of her, and really hoping her captor would get his comeuppance.
But the horror story works well, too. Most of all, because how Kimura's screenplay depicts the H-Men as mostly a predatory substance, maintaining very little of what made them human to begin with. It's not at all like the cartoonish demeanor of the organism from "Space Amoeba." The H-Men attack like parasites ensuring their own survival. When one of them takes the form of a man, in which case they glow with a tremendous neon aura, they are dazzling. But I really like how most of the time, they melt down into a moving sludge that crawls up and down the walls. There are some laughable moments (such as a freeze-frame shot of a victim while animated sludge consumes her body, mercifully cut from the U.S. print of the picture), but the good moments far outnumber the bad ones. Part of the fun of these special effects is just wondering how, given 1950s technology, the staff could pull it off. Especially when sludge starts crawling out of a pool of water and we cannot see any signs of a reverse-speed shot. Aided by Masaru Sato's gentle yet ominous music, the monsters do have a presence of their own.
It is such a relief to finally have Ishiro Honda's "The H-Man" widely available in the United States. For the picture really is a delightful little experience. Even its U.S. print maintains the fun, making a few small edits for pacing and completely honoring the original premise. With some reservations, I would even go so far as to call this one of my more favorite Toho movies of the 50s.
"Heaven's Gate," to my mind, is not the near-masterpiece a lot of
revisionist critics and movie-lovers have predictably named it in the
last few years. I can understand the many reasons behind giving the
film a second chance: it was an unprecedented box office failure when
it first came out in 1980; the critics at the time, lead by the great
Vincent Canby of the New York Times, tore it to ribbons; the director,
Michael Cimino, before proclaimed as one of the most promising of New
Hollywood directors, has had next to nothing for a career in
movie-making since; there's a lot of famous actors in the movie, two of
whom are making their feature-length debut; and it's based on a true
And on top of that, who wouldn't want to like it? Apart from the obvious (only the world's biggest cynic wouldn't want to enjoy a movie that runs 216 minutes), "Heaven's Gate" is a big, blustery epic. I happen to love big, blustery epics, especially ones set in the Old West. Now Michael Cimino, it goes without saying, did not want to make one of the biggest box office and critical flops of all time; he just wanted to tell a fictionalized account of the Johnson County War. But his film is insipidly tedious and incoherent, and every passing minute is more unendurably soulless than the one that comes before it.
There is a vast, grand-scale vision, to the point where Cimino almost seems to have been shy about photographing a close-up of anyone or anything. And sometimes the camera does move in ways that are undeniably interestingsweeping up and over a laundry line of bed sheets to reveal homesteaders as they finish butchering a cow. There's also a shot in the second half which recalls the haunting moment in Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" when the bandits came flooding over the hilltops. Kurosawa's picturewhich did not have the timely advantage of a wide-angle lens, by the wayalso ran just under four hours in length, but was constantly moving, even in its quieter moments. Each scene had a purpose and appropriately wrapped itself up as needed, not as in the case of "Heaven's Gate," where ninety percent of the concluding shots consist of two people sitting in a room, looking either off-screen or at their toes. Also not in service is the photography, which is filled with so much visual dust that it looks as though the camera and the set had been separated by a dirty window.
Maybe Cimino's idea for the dramatic scenes was to mimic another great Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. Here, the camera hardly ever moves; the static shots linger on too long and pile on top of one another with no particular style or rhythm. And in many of these interior-set, would-be dramatic scenes, in which characters just repeat points they made clear many times before, I think I came to better understand Vincent Canby's review, in which he compared the film's unrelenting boredom to a four-hour tour of a living room. Some of these scenes do feel that long, and we are frequently just staring atguess what?a room. The Academy Award-nominated art direction is authentically detailed and good-looking, but even the prettiest picture can lose its interest after a while.
The cast of "Heaven's Gate" is rich with talent, but only one man has a good part to act, and that's the underrated Sam Waterston, virtually unrecognizable compared to his now-famous district attorney in "Law & Order," this time playing a cruel land commissioner. Everybody else is stiff like a corpse and packed with mawkish emotion. The would-be love triangle between Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walkenplaying enforcers on opposite sides of the lawand an immigrant prostitute portrayed by Isabelle Huppert is utilized with no apparent motive except to tell us that a man and a woman, even if they come from different parts of the world, can fall in love. Any intelligent person from the 20th or 21st century already knows that. The point is obvious, so why not instill this dynamic with so passion? When Kristofferson and Huppert fondle and kiss in their first moment together, it feels forced; the actors seem outside their comfort zones. They don't really seem warm and affectionate, or even erotic, toward one another.
John Hurt's also in the movie, playing a dimmer version of his usual wisecracking philosopher. But all of these people have no interest with one another, and yet so much of the story focuses on two or three folks just whispering to one another in an enclosed space. Now when the battles between the homesteaders and the mercenaries begin, Cimino promises some exciting action. The first bitwhere an innocent man is brutally murderedis excellently handled. The Foley, in particular, is marvelous. But each of the three subsequent violent sequences is less exhilarating the one before it, not helped in the least by the 10-20 minutes of drippy melodrama stuffed in between.
"Heaven's Gate" is not one of the worst movies ever made, but it is awfully tempting, for me, to call it just that. For 216 minutes, it left me writhing with boredom and frustration, only occasionally interested. I can forgive the movie's pointless prologue of a beginning, for it does feature what is probably the best scene set to the "Blue Danube" waltz since "2001: A Space Odyssey." But the ending, which is factually much shorter but seems so much longer, is an incoherent and confusing fiasco. As is much of what happens in the middle. So, no, the movie is not particularly worth rediscovering as far as I am concerned. Yes, Michael Cimino is a brilliant talent, and he deserved a better chance to redeem himself. But that's no excuse for mislabeling one of the clunkiest pictures ever made as a masterpiece.
A number of prominent critics working in the United States today have
described Steven Soderbergh's swan song as a post-modern Hitchcockian
thriller. The movie, called "Side Effects" has more artsy qualities
(more trick lenses and color-softened images) but does contain many of
the same attributes the Master of Suspense himself was very fond of: an
innocent man caught in a grotesquely complicated mess; the soft-eyed
girl who is not what she seems to be; a subtle touch of homophobia. In
particular, the movie recalls Hitchcock's very best movie "Vertigo."
That one, as you may recall, had us convinced for about ninety minutes
that it was a supernatural thrillera ghost story blended with a
romanceonly to stomp on us in the final reel with the fact that we had
been duped all along and there was nothing other-worldly about the plot
to begin with. "Side Effects" does not take the exact same approach,
but it does a stupendous job of fooling around with our minds, and then
letting all of the secrets bombard us at the end. Thus, the final shot
in the movie (a reversed image of the first) has a touch to poetry to
And the mystery is clever. If Soderbergh finally does carry out his threat to retire from Hollywood, he can at least boast his last movie caught us all off guard. Nobody walking out of this film can claim the ending was predictable unless they either read a synopsis before going in, had seen it already, or are pathetic liars vying for attention by posing as intellectuals.
The timing for this movie's release could not be better. Our memories are still fresh with Soderbergh's "Contagion," which I still honestly believe was the best movie to come out of the otherwise rotten year of 2011. That picture was praised by many, myself included, for taking an overworked premise and playing it out with a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach. So naturally, we would expect the same from "Side Effects"except the plot this time concerns the possibly psychological effects of drugs as opposed to a worldwide epidemic. So the movie has a double-pleasure effect, the emphasis depending on which half we are watching at the time. In the beginning, I was appreciating the bold and interesting ways it dealt with the story of a severely depressed woman (Rooney Mara) and the way things spiraled out of control after being subjected to an experimental prescription drug. In the second halfthe final thirty minutes, most of allI was overwhelmed by the fact that the filmmakers had tricked me all along. And the double crosses, twists, and subplot denouements come at us in full force.
Scott Z. Burns, who composed the original screenplay, makes the right choice in how he reveals the answers. Frankly, it is ludicrous; it's not something we would believe, if given more than a few minutes to think, could really happen. And if it could, we doubt anybody would try to go through with this scheme (which involves a premeditated murder, double existences, and the stock market) because it is so complicated and there would be so many easier ways, in real life, to pull it off. But Burns smartly gives us the answers one after another and in such close proximity to one another that we do not have time to think about the plausibility (or lack thereof) until the film is over. And by that point, I was so giddily pleased, I did not care. After all, going back to "Vertigo" and the popular comparison of "Side Effects" to Hitchcock, the ending of the 1958 film boasted a secret that was also preposterous and convoluted, yet both movies are so absorbingly told that we swallow up every little point and detail thrown our way.
Steven Soderbergh has probably never made a perfect movie (he's made some near-perfect ones, like "Contagion") because he's constantly taking chances. So "Side Effects" has some loose ends, some weaknesses of its own. First and foremost, there are my small problems with the pacing. In the entire 106 minutes, there was never a long stretch where I was bored, but there were some small individual stretches (a few isolated scenes) that started to lose my interest. Example: a scene where the excellent actor Jude Law, as the psychiatrist who prescribes the supposedly mind-altering drugs, is questioned by a state attorney. The dialogue is good, but there's too many dead space, too many static shots, and it goes on for too long. Then there's Thomas Newman's music. A Steven Soderbergh movie always seems to have a sort of avant-garde feel to its soundtrack no matter who composes it. The soundtracks to this film, "Contagion," and another recent Soderbergh film, "Haywire," were all composed by different people, yet sound the same. It's subtle. But frequently, the artsy aspects bubble and pop too much, and the ending theme (which sounds too much like something we'd hear in an African tribal dance) is the only thing that softens an otherwise perfect ending.
Rooney Mara (who along with Jennifer Lawrence, Felicity Jones, and Ellen Page) is among the most interesting of young actresses today, deserves an Academy Award nomination for her (I can give this away) double-edged performance. Jude Law, once again playing a man who gets in trouble when fiddling with drugs, is also in excellent form and I hope he gets special recognition as well. There are other excellent performances (Catherine Zeta-Jones is marvelous as a fellow psychiatrist), but these two run away with the movie. The whole narrative relies upon their actions. And then there is the other big pleasure of watching a Steven Soderbergh moviejust looking at the images. Every shot is and flourished with color and contrast. To touch very lightly on the subject of Soderbergh's decision to retire: "Side Effects" defines brilliantly what we stand to lose in today's cinema.
From the very first sequence in "Like Crazy," Anton Yelchin and
Felicity Jonesthe stars of this beautifully touching little jewelhave
us convinced they love each other. These two attractively talented
young performers have such easygoing, naturalistic, and warm chemistry
on-screen together, and they maintain it through all the ups and downs
the screenplay throws in their paths. And by the end of the movie, even
though the hurdles these two have had to jump over has undoubtedly
withered their passion, the love is still ever-present. Hence it
becomes so heart-breaking that we realize these two may go on loving
each other forever without really having much mutual respect anymore.
And we are just as prone to blame the party indirectly responsible: the
immigration airline lawmakers, who decide that since Miss Jones, a
visitor from England, overstayed her student visa, that she cannot
return to the United States.
"Like Crazy" has all the advantages and disadvantages of a Sundance-targeted movie. It has those film festival, semi-avant-garde traits: the sped-up time lapses; the odd camera angles. And the editing, to be frank, is unattractively goofy. It is loaded with awkward jump cuts and bizarre misc en scene, some of which actually made me feel a tad uncomfortable. Sequences as simple as two people talking in a room is cut in commercial-format with some shots lasting a mere second and others lasting just a fraction of one. In the case of "Like Crazy," maybe the editor did the best he could, since all accounts insist every line of dialogue was improvised by the actors. I'm sure there was a lot of fat to trim. Everybody was taking a chance with this one. But even through all the awkwardness, the filmmakers do maintain something very vitalpacingand allow Mr. Yelchin and Miss Jones to run away with the story.
I have always said that when it comes to romances put on film, I have one simple demand: convince me that the couple is more than just an actor and an actress playing make-believe; convince me they really do love and care about one another; convince me they do, at least at one point, want to spend the rest of their lives together. "Like Crazy" certainly does accomplish that, but what it also does is something incredibly rare in today's cinema. It gets you to care about the supporting characters as well. Next to the two stars, the biggest name here is recent Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence. About midway through the movie, we are introduced to her, and the storytelling and performances are so pure that five minutes later, when she starts to break down in tears, realizing the man she loves still has feeling for somebody else, we feel for her. A person we just met, and we sympathize with her! This is a movie that cares about all of its characters and understands its characters as people. As human beings.
This is perhaps the warmest and yet most bittersweet love story I have seen sincewhat else?"(500) Days of the Summer" a few years back. It is also physically attractive. If you can get around the jumpy editing style and the fact that the hand-held camera is frequently jostling and twitching like a drunk man on a curb, the cinematography is lush and pretty. The setting jumps between Los Angeles and London; both cities look gorgeous. With such good lighting, even the crummy apartments and Los Angeles dorm rooms look sort of cozy. But again, it all goes back to the performances. Mr. Yelchin and Miss Jones do such superb work rounding out their characters and at several points in the movie, at the end in particular, we will be standing right there with them, wishing the airline laws could have made an exception and not caused this once-warm relationship to spiral downwards. Just once. Of course, that's only in the context of the movie. For the sake of the two main characters. As viewers, we feel sad, but appreciate that the storytellers had the guts to make the ending they did. I adored this movie.
By this point in time, everybody is drooling over Melanie Lynskey's
performance in "Hello I Must Be Going." I am too. But my admiration
does not end strictly with her work in this ambitious little movie;
there is a lot of due credit owed to her co-stars, particularly
newcomer Christopher Abbott, who plays her much-younger lover, and the
insistently reliable Blythe Danner as Miss Lynskey's mother. I guess
Miss Lynskey is collecting most of the praise because ever since
"Heavenly Creatures" in 1994 and her last appearance in "Two and a Half
Men" (one of my favorite shows) everybody wants to see her become a big
star. But she and everybody else in "Hello I Must Be Going" is in good
form. My only wish was that they were encapsulated by a screenplay
worthy of their energy and panache.
I cannot adequately describe how much I wanted to love this movie. Stories about nonconformist relationships interest me, in real life as well as in the movies. And this premisea woman completely drained over her recent divorce discovering the true meaning of love and of live in her affair with a younger mansounds like an absolute winner. Unfortunately, most of the fun and all of the really tender moments are collected in the first 25 minutes and the final 10; these wonderful bits, where I felt my heart strings being yanked on, sandwich a lot of padded-out detritus. And a lot of genuinely unfunny jokes. For instance: when will the romantic comedy genre ever give up on the gag where an elderly woman walks in upon a couple while they are skinny dipping? It wasn't funny when it happened to Campbell Scott and Julia Roberts in "Dying Young" 21 years ago, and it certainly is not funny here.
I cannot deny that the movie has great ambitions: it doesn't want to be just a love story; it wants to make some subtle yet true observations about life. Both Miss Lynskey and Mr. Abbott, in the course of their on-screen relationship, embark on an emotional journey, guiding them to realizing the emptiness surrounding them. A key moment in the picture is when they are having dinner with each other's families, and both are indirectly being put on the hot spot: Miss Lynskey's divorce keeps getting brought up, and Mr. Abbott's self-hated career in stage acting is the only dinner conversation his mother can think of. And then there is the final ten minutes, including a wonderful and entirely honest sequence about marriage, set in a New York diner. And I must commend screenwriter Sarah Koskoff for having the guts to write an ending in which not all of the bows are tied, not every character makes their amends.
The remarkable thing, however, is that Miss Lynskey and Mr. Abbott do not spend nearly as much time together as you would imagine. And many of their moments are punctuated by sex scenesoh, boy, am I getting sick and tired of those as well! Thankfully, they are photographed very quick, but they do not seem to register an erotic or emotional effect. I suppose the idea was that the two characters used the sex to fill the voids in their own lives, but surely there are better ways for characters to bond. I personally am more interested in movie-couples who do not jump into bed (or into the backseat of a car, in this case) two days after they first lay eyes on one another. And after a while, good as they are, Miss Lynskey and Mr. Abbott run out of interesting things to talk about; they just start screaming at one another. And, closer to the end of the movie, just when we think we are about to get a truly beautiful momenta reconciliationthe movie has to pull the dumb, somebody-opens-the-door gag which completely stops the scene. Then there's the excess characters: Julie White exists for no purpose other than to drive Melanie Lynskey home from the bar one night; Jimmi Simpson plays a drip so mawkishly pathetic that I found myself looking to my watch. I understand the point of the character: he's supposed to represent to Miss Lynskey what might eventually become of her. It's not the intentions or the acting, it's the writing.
Then there's the other thing that rubbed me raw. Laura Veirs is credited for writing the original score for this movie, but it's hard to appreciate her instrumental work since most of the soundtrack is riddled with about six or seven too many songs. Maybe it's a personal problem; I'm one of the few people of my generation (adult males under 30) who is not particularly interested in contemporary music. But if I saw one more walking scene with a bunch of overblown lyrics thumping away in the background, I was going to start pounding my forehead.
Believe me when I tell you, I really regret having to stomp all over "Hello I Must Be Going." There is so much ambition in this movie and so many really talented people involved. And even though I've faulted screenwriter Koskoff's work, she does show promise: a bold story and some bursts of really good dialogue. As somebody who has been on the set of an independent movie, I know how much hard work goes into making one. I know script changes are constantly being made; there's pressure to get everything done on schedule. And above all, I hate to put it down for the same reason I always hate giving negative reviews in general: I have to admit to a storyteller that I did not like the story they were telling. But I have to be absolutely honest: "Hello I Must Be Going" did not register very much emotional impact with me. Again, in the beginning and at the end, there is a lot of punch, the middle of the movie really drags for me.
All the ads for "Bullet to the Head" bear the name and image of
Sylvester Stallone, an actor who is perfectly at home in this sort of
picture: a violent shoot-'em-up with a rogue gun-for-hire working with
and against a straight-shooting cop. But, as far as I am concerned,
there should be a second name plastered right alongside Mr. Stallone's.
The extra credit is not, ironically enough, for the Korean actor Sung
Kang, even though he is very good, but instead the film's director. I
walked into "Bullet to the Head" with an open mind, hoping that Mr.
Stallone could keep up the good track record he's had in the last
couple of years (the last "Rambo" and both of the "Expendables"
movies), but when I saw the words 'directed by Walter Hill' in the
opening credits, I knew I was in for a good time.
It's a little hard to believe that this is the first time these two men have worked alongside one another, since they've both made their names doing the same general sorts of movies, and both have been kicking around Hollywood for roughly the same length of time. Better late than never, for even though "Bullet to the Head" is a little rougher than it might be, thanks to Mr. Stallone's charisma and Mr. Hill's sure hand for coordinating action, this movie does pack a walloping punch.
No time is wasted; the movie gets rolling within the first ten minutes. From the start of things, we know who our protagonist is, we know the central bad guy is, and we know there will be plenty of grisly action sequences. Mr. Stallone and Mr. Kang do have a lot of deliberately amusing moments together, most of the laughs collected whenever they are driving from one seedy New Orleans location to another, bickering about ethics, the justice system, the difference between Japanese and Koreans, and Mr. Stallone's relationship to a sassy tattoo artist played by Sarah Shahi. The villains in the picture are also delightfully self-indulgent: the 'brain' behind the whole operation, which involves the balance of power between organized crime and the justice system, is a crippled man whose signature line is: Never trust a man who doesn't care about money. The subject man is the expected big muscle-man with a smirk, Jason Momoa: a walking mountain of a man who walks in and shoots up an entire bar for little reason other than pleasure.
But what really makes the movie is what Walter Hill has always been a virtuoso at: excellent fight scenes. Mr. Hill sets up his camera at many creative angles. My personal favorite being an overhead shot of Mr. Stallone and Mr. Momoa as they duke it out in a restroom, with one of them being slammed bodily through the stall door and knocking the whole thing down. The camera is also frequently set with wider shots, so we can see more than just a split-second now and then of a fist hitting what we perceive to be somebody's stomach. There is also a great shot where Mr. Kang punches somebody in the mouth, and the man's spittle is caught in an overhead light and shows up as an array of brilliant white specks. Every sort of weapon from handguns to out-dated firefighter axes is used at some point, and, just as the title hints, there are plenty of moments where somebody catches a muzzle blast clean through the forehead. It's exactly the sort of suspension of disbelief that a movie like this needs: a character will waste three or four shots hitting their target in the chest and stomach when, as they demonstrate subsequently, they planned all along to put a fatal round between the eyes.
There's also lots of fun imagery: such as an underwater shot where Mr. Stallone stares down at the submerged body of a man he just killed, and drops the murder weapon right down on top of us. Or a delightfully funny moment where Jason Momoa's head pops out of a scuzzy pond, like something from a 1950s science-fiction flick.
"Bullet to the Head" was a nice surprise: an out of the blue teaming up of two action-movie veterans. Admittedly, the story needs some refining and there are a couple of moments where a key shot seems to be missing (during a climax, a man falls from a rafter and just as he hits the ground, we cut to another scene. A reaction shot would have evened things out and given the scene a more completed feel). But this is a nice kick-start to the new year; of the three movies I've seen in 2013 thus farand all have been action-orientatedthis is the one I would encourage people to see more than once. I have a hankering to see it again, myself, as a matter of fact.
The nicest thing about "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is the casting
of its two leads. Jeremy Renner, one of the most worthy of rising stars
in Hollywood today, has an uncanny ability to slide into any role
thrown his way by doing little more than just playing off his own
personality. He's got a rugged quality reminiscent of Steve McQueen.
Opposite him is Gemma Arterton, who also has a charismatic, easygoing
appeal when placed in front of a motion picture camera, and who seems
to have built most of her success by appearing in violent medieval-set
movies such as this. Had she been a bigger name fifteen years ago, she
would have probably wound up somewhere in Peter Jackson's lavish "Lord
of the Rings" films, and it's kind of funny she wasn't in last year's
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." And both Mr. Renner and Miss
Arterton can, as they demonstrate at one point in the movie, bond
on-screen. The highlight of the movie consists of them reuniting in a
remote cabin in the woods, embracing each other. They really do seem to
love and care about one another.
It's a shame that's the only time they are allowed to show any sense of sibling bondage, as they spend the rest of the movie falling out of trees, getting the tar beaten out of them, and being plastered with exploding body parts. "Hansel & Gretel" follows in the tradition of many contemporary medieval, blood-soaked epics: it's completely overproduced. The dialogue is overwritten and punctuated with about two dozen too many swear words, a lot of the make-up meant to make blood-thirsty witches look intimidating comes across, by contrast, as rather corny. The witches hiss and grunt like comic-book critters. And the movie is more concerned about making silly jokes (a villager popping like a balloon and plastering a pub with his insides while the local fan-boy remarks, "That was awesome!") than creating a sense of adventure. There's a lot of computer-enhanced tweaking to the picture, to make the witches look even uglier, and it too pushes the film's visual presentation overboard. Maybe the filmmakers of the 1970s and 80s medieval pictures would have wallowed in this computer technology if it were available at the time, but their advantage was, oddly enough, not having it in their possession. For it forced them to use their ingenuity and utilize the genuine magic of practical effects such as full-fledged make-up and props. I personally have always been more intimidating by a movie-monster when I realize it's actually there with the actors, not painted in with a computer four months after production ended. The one exception is a big friendly troll named Edward who forms a sort of "King Kong"-esque friendship with Miss Arterton. What the computer artists do with the character's eyes, in particular, is really effective, and I found myself caring a whole lot more about this ten-foot-tall critter than any of the little kids the witches were planning to devour.
Next to the actors, the stuff I liked best consisted of the alternate-reality gadgets. Director Tommy Wirkola has set his storyhis first one produced in the United Statesin the sort of world that James Whale made popular with "Frankenstein" in the 1930s. He combines technology/life styles into a blend between ancient times and today. Hansel and Gretel hunt witches using crossbows as well as every variety of firearm known to modern-day man. Machine guns, included. If they only had an H-bomb on their hands, they would have really had it made. But that was also part of the fun, showing me a blend of two different worlds. At one point in the film, a temporary sidekick picks up one of their gadgetsa sort of old-fashioned taser gunuses it to subdue a witch, and remarks, "I like your toys!" I concur.
Even though Hans Zimmer is credited only as the executive producer for the soundtrack and Alti Orvarsson for actually writing the music we hear, one can sense Mr. Zimmer's influence. His scores for Christopher Nolan's three Batman movies can even be heard poking their thump-thump thump-thump-thump! motifs at certain points. This is not a detractor, as the music, no matter how much it shows its influence, is very good.
I would like to see Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton team up in another, better movie with a better sense of adventure. Yes, a "Hansel & Gretel: Part II" would be welcomed by me, if it improves upon its source. There are many definitions to a good adventure-movie, but the one I utilize is this: how much disbelief can I suspend? Most of these movies raise lots of logistics questions, but if it works on its own terms, I won't ask those questions until the movie's over. But if my interest becomes lost, those questions will start firing away like a machine gun. And they were firing away during "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters." If Mr. Renner needs to inject a medicine into his leg every few hours and he spends most of his life in the wilderness, how does he replenish his supply? Does he ever run out? Why does it take one person a few hours to walk between a town and remote spot in the woods, and yet it takes the experienced Hansel and Gretel until nightfall to get to a cabin about halfway? I'm aware these sorts of questions are not welcomedand I would have preferred not to ask them during the screeningbut my attention span was constantly sputtering.
And I guess I might as well address the 3D. Not being a fan of the process, this go-around also failed to impress me. Even with globs of blood, fiery debris, and bullets launching from the screen. See the film in 2D, for nothing is really going to seem to be missing. "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is a pretty dopey movie, and the 3D just makes it dopier.
A fair number of film scholars and enthusiasts would agree that the
career of John Carpenter began with tremendous success, culminated with
his much-loved 1978 scare picture "Halloween," and has been merely
sputtering ever since. I am not one of those people. For me,
"Halloween" was a decent yet unremarkable thrillerconstantly
threatened by some very bad actingand Carpenter's track record in the
years since, at least through the mid-1980s, only grew more impressive,
more interesting, and more enjoyable. Hence I feel that his 1980 ghost
story "The Fog" is a step up from the bogeyman fable that made him a
household name in the horror genre.
One of Carpenter's nicest assets as a director is his choice of subtle subject matter. He tells old-fashioned, simplistic stories without trying to make them over into something profound. After all, "Halloween" was at heart just a bogeyman story with some slight touches of Sigmund Freud thrown in. "Escape from New York" featured some social satire, but was predominately a science-fiction spectacle. And Carpenter's best film, "The Thing," became so intensely frightening because it understood its base as a 'who's who' monster movie. The same applies to "The Fog." There is an explanation as to why the ghosts in this story decide to attack a particular seaside neighborhood on a particular night, but the answer is thrown in our laps right away. Even if you axed the movie's prologuewhich Carpenter originally intendedwe would learn the motives of these specters before the first hour was up and the big string of attacks had begun.
It would have been all too easy, and perhaps tempting, for Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill to try and weave some mock-profundity out of all this, but thankfully, they did not. As a result, "The Fog" wisely steps away from being an hour and a half of pseudo-intellectual nonsense and plays itself with a straight face. And not for a second is it boring.
The narrative bounces between several of the town's inhabitants, all of whom are represented by very talented actors. "Halloween" star Jamie Lee Curtis takes one of the starring roles and shows a vast improvement in her acting, starring alongside none other than her mother, Janet Leigh. It does seem appropriate; both of these actresses got their start in movies in which they were stalked by deranged killers with butcher knives (Miss Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho") so it must have been a dream come true for Carpenter to put them together. Yet he does not go for the obvious tactic of turning them into cinema pals; they do not even share a two-shot until the final reel. And neither actress is allowed to steal screen time from anybody else; in fact, the only one who comes even close to doing so is the one who was the most interesting: Adrienne Barbeau as the owner of a lighthouse-set radio station, watching and reporting as the big waves of glowing fog wash over her community.
I liked the people in "The Fog" and I liked the ghouls who emerge from the misty walls, but what I enjoyed the most was Carpenter's visual flair as a director: his insistence on shying from ultra-tight close-ups so aplenty in most horror films, the bluish tint he has applied to the lens, how the camera transitions between light and dark settings, and the way he stages bizarre scenarios. There are a number of 'what-is-going-on?' moments in "The Fog," such as water bleeding from a piece of driftwood before suddenly catching fire, and the director stages everything excellently. He gives special attention to these seemingly inexplicable moments. In these moments, the audience forgets this stuff is foreseeable in a spook-story and joins in with the characters, pondering what is happening and what will soon happen. And when the ghouls do appear, Carpenter uses the fog motif and the distance between the specters and the camera efficiently. He appropriately does not give us too much of the villains, thereby rendering them more effective. Less is more.
On the negative side of the equation, I wish Carpenter and Debra Hill had chosen a straight-forward resolution to wrap up their story. As a matter of fact, they start out with one, only to follow in the footsteps of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," where the peaceful yet haunting conclusion is capped off with an out-of-the-blue shocker. It's not badespecially not the way it's been photographedit just seems unnecessary. In addition, although the ghosts' motive for returning to this town a hundred years after their deaths is spelled out clearly, the selection of their victims does seem a tad hazy. Once again, I'm glad the screenwriters did not try to make some mock-profound social commentary out of the whole ordeal, but just another sentence or two to explain who they will come after would have helped some. Basically everything else is just nitpicks: was it necessary to have Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins jump into bed a minute after they meet when the rest of the movie really just presents them as two strangers with a developing friendship?
And one does beg the question: why do the ghosts target clustered individuals behind walls and barriers when there's a town gathering smack-dab in the open?
So what if it's not an impeccable masterpiece? I've never been one to let nitpicks go too far, especially when my mood when viewing the picture has been predominately positive. In the case of "The Fog," my mood was overwhelmingly positive; I really enjoyed watching this simplistic ghost fable. Because, once again, it does not make itself out to be anything big, profound, and deep. It just drills as deep into the plot mechanics as it needs to (maybe a tad too shallow, I admit) and lets the director's flair take control of the entertainment value. It's not a perfect movie, but I still liked it very much.
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