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Who cares about Lars and his buddy's writing process?
Lars von Trier is a genius when he actually makes a film, as he did with Element of Crime and Europa, two visually stunning films that I absolutely love. But here, von Trier does not so much tell a story as tell a story about people writing a story and then give us all-too-brief segments of that story. If von Trier had just filmed the story about the doctor who tries to cure a plague but instead ends up spreading it, we would have had another masterpiece. Indeed, the segments that tell this story are wonderful. But to get to these gems, which make up perhaps 5 percent of the movie, we have to wade through intolerable stretches of 16mm excrement. Lars and his friend think up this idea, visit this place, talk to Udo Kier, frustrate and infuriate the viewer with impossibly boring stretches of cinema verité. The experience was painful. In fact, I'll deduct some credit for pain and suffering.
First Men in the Moon (1964)
Painfully stupid first act, joyously fun action and adventure after.
9 out of 10 times, when a movie fails, it fails because it does something stupid. Something gets placed into the movie that was never a good idea in the first place. Fortunately, this movie came back in the second act to redeem itself.
It's an idiotic first act that keeps this from being a better film. They never should have added a woman into the cast. She practically screams out, "I wasn't in the novel!" For the whole first act, she gets in the way, bothers people, meddles, does all the stupid and annoying things a stereotypical leading lady would do in a film like this that make us worry that we won't get to see what we want to see. And for what? To fill a role that never needed to be filled in the first place. We need jokes based on the differences between men and women to keep people interested in the movie. After all, we can't expect them to simply be interested in a voyage to the ****ing moon! To top things off, the first act (after the framing device, which I will come to later) thinks this movie is a comedy. The professor is introduced as a funny old eccentric, with tuba music underlining the supposedly funny aspects. For a time in the 50s and 60s, comedy stopped being funny. Tired stereotypes of women, the battle of the sexes, things like that took the place of clever writing. Thank god for French New Wave! Then there's the framing device. Our astronauts, who include representatives from the Soviet Union in a nice bit of forward-thinking, find the evidence of our heroes' adventures on the moon. Then U.N. representatives on Earth seek out our leading man, now many years older. People thought he was crazy, but no, his stories were true all along! Apparently what has endured in print was not good enough for these filmmakers. They couldn't just dive headlong into the story in the year 1899. No, they had to frame it. And then at the end, (skip if you want to find out for yourself,) they shamelessly steal the aliens-killed-by-earth-viruses twist from War of the Worlds.
Now, what the movie does do right is actually provide solidly fun action and adventure when it finally gets to it. Aliens, giant carnivorous caterpillars, fanciful sets in vivid color, men in alien suits, a gray and orange sphere hurtling through space, Ray Harryhausen creations. This is the stuff that dreams are made of! Plus the stupid comedy elements stop completely. This redeems the film after its fatally flawed first act.
Corpse Bride (2005)
This movie wishes it could be The Nightmare Before Christmas.
There can be no doubt about it: this movie made a conscious attempt to recapture the magic of The Nightmare Before Christmas. But it is a failure. The charm, the charisma, the sprightly feel, the memorable characters, the catchy songs, the very soul is missing.
Victor, the hero, is largely to blame. Or rather, Tim Burton is to blame for writing him. Jack Skellington was a fantastic character. He exuded charisma. Victor is a spineless little wimp. I can't count the times I wanted him to be a man and stick up for himself; to do the obvious things he needed to do to win out. But instead he was a passive vessel for everyone's abuse. He is a terrible heart for this film. And when he enters the world of the dead, his introduction, "Remains Of The Day," finds him constantly freaked out and scared by his strange surroundings. The movie shouts, "This is weird and creepy! Doesn't it make you feel uncomfortable? That means we're doing it right!" But of course, after The Nightmare Before Christmas, this world isn't so weird or unfamiliar. We've seen a similar place before. And a better move would have been to show Victor becoming comfortable in this strange world. Remember how "This Is Halloween" invited you into the macabre and bizarre Halloween Town and made you feel comfortable in that fantastic place? Wasn't that a cool feeling? Wouldn't it have been great if your point of entry to the world of the dead wasn't such a spineless ninny?
And now to another flaw that sinks this film: the songs. It's Danny Elfman, of course, teaming up with Tim Burton in the usual way. But this collaboration doesn't have the magic of the Nightmare Before Christmas score. In fact, it feels totally phoned-in. The opening song, "According to Plan," is such a boring piece of exposition with such un-engaging and workman-like lyrics! "Assuming nothing happens that we don't really know,/That nothing unexpected interferes with the show./And that's why everything, every last little thing,/Every single tiny microscopic little thing must go/According to plan." These are lines for a Greek chorus, not for characters who have names! We see this problem in other songs, like "Remains of the Day" and "Tears to Shed." In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the songs contributed to the flow of the piece. It was comparable to The Wizard of Oz. Here they just slow things down and call attention to themselves.
Sure, it's pretty to look at, but the first consideration, the script, was a weak foundation, and the flaws keep this film below the level of simple goodness, hence 5 out of 10 stars. Perhaps Tim Burton should have had Henry Selick direct again. Certainly he should have had the script rewritten and sent Danny Elfman back to the drawing board. The whole thing is an exercise without passion or inspiration. And not to be a formula nazi, but the film needed a third act. It didn't so much end as stop.
Carl Reiner wasn't the worst thing about this pilot.
The history books will tell you that the fatal flaw of this pilot was Carl Reiner's casting of himself as Rob. That's not really the truth of the matter. Carl Reiner was certainly wrong for the part, but he's actually the best thing in this pilot. Everyone else was even more miscast (excepting Jack Wakefield as the faceless Alan Sturdy.) The actors playing Laura and Ritchie were dull as dishwater. Their scenes were stagnant. When Carl Reiner came in as Rob, he was actually refreshing. Sally and Buddy didn't have much to recommend themselves either. But what was worst of all was the script. It has none of the cleverness or charm of the series. It's the completely uninspired story of a comedy writer whose son doesn't appreciate what he does for a living, and the resolution is that his son is finally impressed by a very corny poem he wrote for the PTA. The whole affair was dull and lacking in any human warmth. The characters had no chemistry together. There were no laughs. Sure, Carl Reiner was wrong for the part of Rob, but he was the best thing this pilot had going for it.
Fortunately, the scenario dramatically re-invented itself as The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the rest is history.
Alice in Wonderland (1949)
The creepy kind of weird.
It's a hideous little production, apt to give one nightmares as well as headaches. It's an unsightly blend of live action and ugly stop-motion animation. It's weird, but it's not the kind of fun, weird trip anyone optimistic might expect. It's the cold, inhuman, unfriendly, sickening, even creepy kind of weird. There is absolutely no reason to watch this movie. After all, Disney did a fantastic job with the same source material. And Cosgrove-Hall did far more attractive things with stop-motion.
Interestingly, this is a French production. As such, it re-enforces the stereotype that the French have no concept of scary.
Adult Swim is still clueless when it comes to live action.
Stiff was a terrible misfire for Adult Swim. It failed on every level. All attempts at comedy fell flat.
First of all, Stiff tried to copy the screwball action style of Sam Rami's Evil Dead films, especially Army of Darkness, during the fight scenes. But it failed. When the hero battled a zombie while the zombie trash talked him, it was just dumb. And the hero didn't have half the charisma of Ash.
Second, Stiff was basically meant to be a parody of those Saturday Afternoon Action Comedies that air on various networks. But the creators mistook imitation for parody and simply made their own particularly bad Saturday Afternoon Action Comedy. And it wasn't bad in any kind of fun or interesting way; it was just boring. When the heroine did a slow-motion flying kick and winked at the camera, again, just dumb. They copied the formulas of the genre, and then they left it at that. In scenes that were played straight, they lost the sense of fun that actual Saturday Afternoon Action Comedies have. The characters were dull and lifeless. And in terms of talent and ability, everything about the production was below B-list. Way below B-list, even for the genre. A level or two below what is involved in the shows that inspired it.
Stiff simply wasn't funny. It stunk.
A flawed debut
I'll skip the synopsis and go right for the flaws. The little boy was sketched as a weak caricature. Our hero, the murdered man, was given some very weak dialog. The subplot about the divided miners' union was verbose. The confrontation between the two union heads came to an unbelievable conclusion. The man in white was not as much of a mystery as the film seems to think he is. At the end, with four principles dead, we expect them to meet at last and discuss what has happened with one another, but instead the movie watches the boy run crying down a road, and damn it, the movie isn't about the boy! -----paragraph----- The film sets up the murdered man to slowly come to realize the fact that there will be no justice for his murder and that it is better, once one has died, not to torture oneself by watching the world he has left behind. That the movie ends before he comes to this realization makes the ending very unsatisfying. Of course, the film doesn't allow him to realize as much as the viewer feels he should. Perhaps that is the greatest flaw. Or perhaps it is the fact that the two union heads fight each other to the death when at least one of them should know that it is more important for them to unite against a common enemy. Then there's the man in white. The movie seems to think he's a mystery, but it's pretty obvious that he's a representative of the mining company looking to crush the unions. The murdered man, our hero, does not realize this, nor does the movie seem to think the viewer does, but the viewer does know, and with all the murdered man has heard, by all rights he should, too. Instead, he spouts weak dialog about his murder. He recites his stilted inner monologue like a man in a stage play, and it doesn't work. Really, he's too complacent. He passively watches people talk about him. He does not put up any kind of fight to make the living world hear him. He doesn't undergo the process of accepting that he cannot interact with the living world. At the end, he's even trying to speak to a living man, even though he should have come to realize that it's impossible. And, as I said before, he hasn't made any progress toward accepting the fact that he must forget the world of the living and accept his fate. His story arc feels very unfinished. The script needed a rewrite.
J'irai comme un cheval fou (1973)
So hard to judge.
This film really straddles the line between art and pornography. I feel the need to praise it for its uniqueness and beautiful surrealism, but I don't think I would want to watch this film again. Between these two points of view, I'll never forget this film.
There are some great images: a skeleton in a nest at the top of a steel pole; sex between two people wearing gas masks; the protagonists being rolled around in a plastic sphere.
Then there are some absolutely unpleasant images. The midget places a rose into a woman's crack, pulls it out covered in s--t, and licks it clean. This and similar scenes have done nothing but disturb me. This fascination with human waste seems fetishistic and pornographic rather than artistic. Also, the film features some oedipal scenes that just feel uncomfortable. I have to reflect that Un Chien Andalou, which is considered a masterpiece of its genre, deliberately went for shock value in its day, so I forgive this film somewhat. But at the same time, I feel unwilling to see it again.
Some scenes have me on the fence. In a nativity scene, the Christ child has his genitals skewered. A young boy gets shot to death by a firing squad. There is a scene of cannibalism. The scenes are both artistically striking and difficult to watch.
I wrote in an earlier review for Blockbuster.com, "This film really is a troublesome one. It is at turns a sublime menagerie of images and a grotesque carnival geek show. The director is at turns a genius and a pervert. The works of genius make the film worth seeing." As before, you have the right to be curious.
It's just awful!
I stopped watching this film half way through. It was just terrible! Boring, contrived subplots. A complete lack of the pathos seen in Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, or Steve Railsback's portrayal of Ed Gein. A movie doesn't have to be historically accurate, but the true story of Ed Gein is so much more interesting than this third-rate melodrama that was completely made up for no good reason! Ed Gein as portrayed by Kane Hodder is a cartoon sadist. The attempts to show the trauma inflicted on him by his mother are just weak exercises in recycled style. And this movie wanted to be stylish, but it even screwed that up. Fortunately, there is a better film of this story. 2001's Ed Gein told the story efficiently, and offered a few real chills as we watched a sick man not in control of himself. Steve Railsback, who played Ed Gein that time, was already famous for memorably portraying another famous serial killer: Charles Manson. His Ed had pathos. His film is the one to see. Avoid this mess.
Grave New World (1972)
Stick with the album
Grave New World the Movie is available on a DVD. It's been transfered from tape and looks absolutely horrible. But quality aside, the film isn't very good.
For whatever reason, The Strawbs decided to reorder the songs, destroying the conceptual flow of the original album. To make things worse, they left off two of the best tracks: "Queen of Dreams" and "Heavy Disguise." What's left isn't very good on its own terms. The songs are OK, but the videos are completely uninspired. Primitive as can be. Some will say that people in 1972 didn't know how to make music videos yet, to which I reply, "A Hard Day's Night? Help?" Some primitive (to reuse a word) green screening is used in several videos; the use of the technique was ill-advised. So was the use of stock footage. And the long sequence of small children kicking a soccer ball back and forth in a park is particularly troubling: did the band really think this went with the music?
"Tomorrow" manages to stand out somewhat, sticking to images of the band as they rock out.