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Miss Hokusai (2015)
9/10
Like an anime "Mr. Turner", with a dose of magic realism
17 March 2017
As others have noted, some of the musical choices can be a bit off-kilter, but perhaps they are meant to demonstrate that bustling Tokugawa-era Edo was every bit as exciting as modern-day Tokyo. The animation is gorgeous, and the fact that "Miss Hokusai" does not follow traditional biopic conventions only strengthens it. It also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, without being historically inaccurate. With all the interest around Hokusai and woodblock prints in the West, it's unfortunate that this film was not publicized more.
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Sons of Liberty (2015– )
3/10
It's not HBO, it's TV.
9 February 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This cringe-worthy "entertainment", intended for bored teens, represents the depths to which the History Channel has sunk to lately. The already dramatic and interesting events have been dumbed down, sexed up, and modernized to the point where I was waiting for Sam Adams and Revere to call each other "dude".

Yes, for the completely uninitiated, the show does provide some semblance, albeit very distorted, of lowest-common-denominator history. Those wanting to learn more about the subject afterward will no doubt be disappointed to discover that Adams was no ninja, Gage was no bloodthirsty wife-beater, and Revere never killed anyone. To add insult to injury, the battle of Lexington and Concord was not even filmed in its proper season, i.e. mid-April. Rather, it looked like midsummer, and the famous bridge was nowhere in sight.

While HBO's "John Adams", (the standard against which all American Revolution works will be measured) had it's share of historical liberties, it was at least well-written, well acted, and somewhat believable. Some of its exaggerations and deviations made cinematic/narrative sense and could be forgiven based on the overall strength of the acting and screenplay. That's decidedly not the case with "Sons of Libery". Intelligent viewer, beware.
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9/10
Blows all other "princess" movies out of the water
6 January 2015
I was excited to see Kaguya-hime during a trip to Japan, on its release date in 2013, with only beginner-level Japanese. The visual story is told so masterfully that I didn't feel that I gained much more insight after re-watching with subtitles.

Length is not an issue here - Takahata takes time to complete the narrative, and for a good reason. The leisurely pace mesmerizes the viewer and allows investment in the characters. By the final moments, which unfold to an ethereal, psychedelic melody, there's not a dry eye in the house. The audience wept audibly both in Japan and U.S. screenings. Considering the similar effect of "Grave of the Fireflies", Takahata may be an even greater emotional manipulator than Spielberg, but a far less maudlin one. Although the film deals with universal themes that could easily turn into clichés (parenting, social mobility, death, etc.), in the hands of this director they invite profound contemplation.

The animated images are among Ghibli's most beautiful - they seem to be equally inspired by 12th-century Genji scrolls and modernist Rimpa-school nature paintings. One amazing scene, of Kaguya's brief "rebellion", is downright expressionistic. It's probably my favorite animation sequence of all time.
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9/10
One of the few Western animation series that made it to the USSR
4 June 2014
For some unknown reason, this cartoon was released on Soviet Central Television in 1981, and re-ran for several years throughout the 80s. Only 11 out of 16 episodes passed censorship (the one taking place in China didn't make it, but the US ones did). It quickly became a staple for most inquisitive kids of my generation, and opened up the world for many of us. From there, I've learned about many places, such as New Orleans, San Francisco, Mount Fuji (which shows just how little educational children's programming about geography beyond the Iron Curtain existed in those days). The dubbing and translation was first rate, and the Russian version of Passepartout, while having the same tone of voice, was somewhat less annoying than the original. It's hard to say how the show would hold up with today's internet-raised kids, but I have very fond memories of it, and can definitely trace my wanderlust to those 11 episodes.
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Anna Karenina (2000– )
8/10
Best adaptation yet
2 April 2014
Anna Karenina is my all-time favorite book, and having watched a number of Russian and English-language adaptations, including the 2012 Joe Wright film with Keira Knightly, I consider this 2000 Masterpiece Theater version the most faithful and watchable of them all. While Helen McRory may not be as conventionally pretty as many other actresses who played Anna, her acting is spot on, and she's closer to the character as envisioned and described by Tolstoy. The other characters are cast very well, and few liberties are taken with the plot. Aside from the now-dated 1977 BBC miniseries, this is the version which spends the most time on the Levin-Kitty storyline, as it should be. The main reason I deduct 2 points is that parts of the series inevitably felt like a breeze-through the book's themes - as no adaptation can truly capture the depth of the original novel.
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War and Peace (2007– )
6/10
cute illustration, but not too deep
9 October 2013
Never expect a screen treatment of Tolstoy's work to be as profound as the original. Any film version is best approached as a kind of comic book illustration. That being said, War and Peace in this "Golden age of TV" should be filmed as a multi-season show, not a miniseries, to even begin capturing the novel's depth.

This 2007 adaptation has better overall casting than the '56, '67, or '72 productions. Filming on location in Russia also helps. The Rostov family, Price Andrei, Old Bolkonsky, Helene, Dolokhov, and others are well-realized and well-acted (albeit dubbed into a rather stale English). Pierre is a quite bit leaner than Tolstoy's creation, but appropriately awkward, and a big improvement over the pretty-boy Fonda in '56 or the aging Bondarchuk in '67. As for Natasha, I got over her portrayal as a blonde pretty quickly, and thought Poesy does a serviceable job channeling the young Rostova's Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl qualities.

The "War" scenes are duly enhanced by cgi, but are clearly not the main reason to see this version. The series fares better with the far more budget-friendly "Peace" portion of the Novel. Some of the sequences are remarkably faithful (most of the Bolkonsky family narrative, for example), but many others were altered for dramatic effect, or to suit modern audiences: Natasha's friendship with Pierre and acquaintance with Prince Andrei prior to 1811 has been considerably strengthened. Pierre's Masonic brotherhood is omitted, and here he's merely "studying the Gospel". Anatole is given a grudge against Andrei to start courting Natasha. The lively and very cinematic scene with Balaga and the gypsies is cut. Part 4 is the weakest, as there are many deviations from Tolstoy's plot to wrap up the story threads even more neatly, and a lot of it feels like by-the-numbers soap opera.

Still, for fans of the book, it's a worthwhile visualization of Tolstoy's characters and their world. With all the flaws, it's still not much worse than the previous versions, and even superior in some ways (mostly the authentic sets and the good looking cast). Just don't get your expectations too high.
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Nora (2000)
8/10
surprisingly accurate, rewarding for Joyce fans
9 January 2012
I've read the biography on which this movie is based, and found that the screen adaptation hasn't embellished the true story (unlike most biopics) very much. "Nora" covers the Joyces courtship in Dublin, immigration, and their years in Trieste until 1914 when "Dubliners" was finally published. McGregor may not be perfectly cast - he's heavier, and not much of a tenor - Joyce, on the other hand, was so renowned for his singing that he briefly contemplated making a career out of it. Ewan's very earnest in his attempt, though, he gets an A for effort. Susan Lynch makes a great Nora, no complaints there.

Some of the chronology is played around with - the Prezioso episode happened after James and Nora's last mutual visit to Galway, not before. Two of Joyce's sisters are conflated into one, and the family's stint in Rome is omitted. Some episodes are invented for the sake of exposition, such as the run-in with the cattle in Dublin. Those are minor quibbles. The film got many details right - not the least of which was how elegantly the couple always tried to dress despite their relative lack of funds. Trieste hasn't changed much since early 20th century, so we also get to see some nice location shots - and a few in Dublin.

I was a bit disappointed that the film ended at an early cutoff point, after James and Nora's first decade together. Ideally, it should have been a miniseries a la "John Adams", and covered their fame in Paris, Nora and the kids caught in a Civil War crossfire during their last trip to Ireland, Joyce's eye troubles, Lucia's illness, etc. As is, it shows only the beginning of an almost 40-year relationship.
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9/10
possibly one of the best WWII-themed films I've ever seen
19 May 2007
"Twenty Days without War" is one of the very few "cinema-verite" style films made on the topic of World War II, specifically the Soviet home front. Based on the life of famous war correspondent and poet Konstantin Simonov (who himself narrates off-screen at the opening and closing sequences), this remarkable film follows the venerable Yuri Nikulin, playing a Simonov-like character who is granted a 20-day leave to visit the Uzbek city of Tashkent (one of the major evacuation centers during the war, where the Soviet cinema studios were moved). Part of his journey's purpose is to advise the filming of a propagandistic screen version of one of his stories. Many of the sequences here are shot almost documentary-style, with such unpretentiousness and candor, as if the real war participants and victims were actually interviewed on screen. And yet, lyrical and even poetic moments are also glimpsed, albeit in amazingly unforced, unsentimental fashion. Most of the actors, including Nikulin himself, lived through or fought in the war, and their intention, as well as the director's must have been to deliver a hitherto-unknown, "you are there" immediacy to the audience. They splendidly succeed, as the film, like no other of its kind, brings to life the reminiscences of my grandparents, who experienced both the fighting and the evacuation. In fact, it remains my grandmother's all-time favorite war film because of the honesty of its emotions and the truthful spirit of the period it conveys.
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Gibel Otrara (1991)
Illegitimate child of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky
12 April 2004
An amalgam of influences ranging from "Ivan the Terrible" (gloom-filled court intrigues) to "Andrei Rublev" (horses and grisly executions) to "Conan the Barbarian" (exotic sex scene), with quite a lot of Kurosawa (an array of Toshiro Mifune character types from the various stages of his career) thrown in as well - making a unique whole. Inexplicably shot on both color and black and white stock with little transitional logic. At times threatening to lapse into incoherence, but never quite abandoning the audience. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Amirkulov must have been enjoying almost total artistic freedom: as evidenced by the near-constant violence, a good deal of nudity, and plenty of religious discussion, no censorship of any kind has been imposed by the state.

Amazingly enough, this is an altogether compelling, thought-provoking and even historically accurate (more so than "Gladiatior", at any rate) picture. Some background in Ghengis Khan's 13th century conquests does help understand the proceedings, but is not necessary. If anything, do the research after the film (like I did) and see it again (like I hopefully will if it's ever released in a digital format). Given the very limited budget of the filmmakers, some of what they achieved here is truly impressive (and surely more authentic and heartfelt than any latest computer-generated imagery).
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4/10
Bloody Awful
25 January 2003
What is it with film directors that they cannot produce consistently good work once fame and reverence goes to their head? Scorsese is considered the greatest US filmmaker still active (by all those who don't think so of Spielberg). Much like his endlessly-feuding, barbaric, mid-19th century New Yorkers, the man seems to have worn his welcome in history, and what a sad, sad realization that is.

His masterpieces ("Mean Streets", "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull", "Goodfellas"), will always remain such, and hopefully endure in the annals of cinema. But why, why such travesty?

Abandoning his unique style in favor of a concoction between "Moulin Rouge" and "Braveheart" (with a bit of "The Postman" thrown in for good measure), Scorsese, in his apparent eagerness to catch up to the 21st century, seems to have adopted the worst traits of modern moviemaking. The next step in this witches' brew of a film is assembling the most familliar and tired screenwriting cliches, grinding them, stirring them to a boil, and then pouring them out onto the screen. Add to that a haphazard, sluggish editing, which may or may not be the result of Scorsese's battle with Miramax. Then some generic actors who clearly look uncomfortable and not even very significant before such a gigantic ego. Construct a post-apocalyptic looking set, and include a CGI(!) elephant stampede during the climax. Shall I even continue?

GONY's underlying themes are even more dubious and incomprehensible - what are we supposed to make of the primitive stab at Civil-War America's social/ethnic urban politics? Vengeance, religion, parenthood, and yes, democracy - are distilled to a comic-book level.

What has happened to the master who in his heyday created such dynamic, urgent, intoxicating (and subtle, in their own inimitable fashion) character studies? After seeing this grandiose folly, one wishes that Scorsese would have taken a graceful exit, and retired or stuck to film preservation. Bergman, for example, has not made a feature film in almost 20 years, and that makes him no less great...
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9/10
Superior to the first installment!
20 December 2002
Warning: Spoilers
After a year of anticipation, increasingly intense with each day of waiting, each spoiler revealed, and each rave early review read, the second part of LOTR has finally arrived. As a wary filmgoer who seldom wastes money on current cineplex junk, I was naturally concerned whether this colossal undertaking will live up to my expectations, let alone its equally collossal hype.

Perhaps, The Two Towers is an easier book to adapt cinematically, because it is more action-based, and its main events occur during a more condensed time period - weeks as opposed to months or years. On the other hand, it creates greater challenges in terms of intercutting between three separate storylines. Peter Jackson does a near-flawless job facing up to these challenges, and largely succeeds. The flaws are still there, but they are less jarring. The "gloom and doom" yet hopeful spirit of Tolkien's second book is present in spades, and again - painstalking detail is lavished on all visual aspects of Middle Earth.

Now, the usual discussion of strengths and weaknesses - and the latter are definitely fewer this time around.

WARNING - POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!! -----------------------------------------------

THE GOOD:

1) My favorite character in the entire book was always Gollum, and Jackson's team along with Andy Serkis absolutely nail him. He is best acted and most complex of all, a feat for a CGI creature. As another reviewer said, "Jar-Jar is not fit to lick Gollum's ass", a view which I wholeheartedly agree with. When Gollum/Serkis remembers his past as Smeagol, the moment alone is worth the price of admission. Personalit(ies) indeed go a long way. Nearly every scene in the book that featured Gollum is reproduced here, with great accuracy, even the "rabbit stew" scene! The final scene of the film is extremely effective, possibly one of the finest.

2) Gimli - yes, he is largely relegated to necessary comic relief, but he is funny, not laughable. His character is actually well realized, because a Dwarf would truly feel like a fish out of water in such foreign surroundings. He also gets to save the day more than a few times. I have a feeling he'll have even more to say and do in the Extended DVD.

3) Merry and Pippin display passion and wit, taking their development further.

4)The movie is historically/geographically minded, and handles various new places and concepts well. The fans even get references to the Bombadil Story omitted from FOTR - the Old Forest and the Barrow-Whigths (Gollum sings their song). All of the landscapes are gorgeous, and 100% Alan Lee.

5) Of course, the epic feel is tremendous and the action spectacular. It is unneeded to even mention. At times it seemed like I was watching something out of the Iliad.

THE NOT-SO-BAD:

1) Arwen and Aragorn came off well, at least non-distracting. The sequence of Arwen mourning and wandering the woods alone was starltingly beautiful.

2) Faramir I never cared much about, so his motivation changes did not bother me. The actor playing him was not very strong however, and didn't impress me. Good thing he had little screen time.

3) Treebeard was decent, not quite as I would have liked but in the context of the film, the ents worked. I know that they will get additional scenes in the DVD from Jackson's interview. Their scenes appeared choppy. The Destruction of Isengard, though, was magnificent - goosebump-worthy.

4) The music was still excessive, but better. The Rohan theme was more pleasing to the ear than any pseudo-Titanic pap.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD:

1) The Rohan "women and children" storyline. Used purely for dramatic purposes, cheesy and worn-out. Could have done without it.

2) Sam's long speech about heroic endurance at the end needed some editing. Jackson is not a director known for subtelty.

3) Haldir's real death and Aragorn's fake one were overdone (slow-motion bathos syndrome) , but that is a fairly minor complaint.

4) CGI was spotty in places (the wargs and oliphaunts come to mind), but not enough to ruin the scenes. In fact, none the action scenes falter much.

------------------------------------------------------------

In closing, I am pleased that TTT not only lived up to the hype/expectations, but managed to exceed them on almost all accounts. A gleeful smile has hardly left my face in all 3 hours, and my expression changed to an annoyed cringe only once or twice - far less than during Fellowship. I have to say that this film was the one (in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre) that I enjoyed the most ever since the good old days of the original Star Wars Trilogy, and I do not say that lightly.
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10/10
Master & Margarita meets Vertigo - bold, brilliant stuff!
10 January 2002
Don't call it a comeback, he's been here for years - and hopefully for many more years to come - David Lynch is truly the only remaining American director from that great 70's generation who is still capable of enthralling his audience. He knows well that they have seen everything, every imaginable plot twist, and yet he manages to surpass any and all expectations, to disregard all convention and lovingly proceed with a vision uniquely his - the trademark dreamscape with layers of sinister perversion underneath. We are pulled in, and emerge some 2+ hours later from a sensual experience more enjoyable and powerful than any intoxicant. At first, a scorching, hellish version of Los Angeles is presented, where strange, supernatural, possibly infernal characters interfere with the status quo of comically drawn Hollywood types - much like the opening chapters of the famous Bulgakov novel where the devil and his companions come to Moscow and wreak havoc in the literary circles. The local powers that be are ridiculed in a very similar fashion. But before one has time to get comfortable with the narrative's course, a torrid relationship bursts on the scene and suddenly we are in a very different place, physically and emotionally. After a hypnotic climax (Llorando will indeed make you weep), comes the equally bizzare denouement which purposefully leaves more questions than answers.

Still, the end result is enormously satisfying - various parts of the film linger for days, weeks... Exquisite style and color, old-fashioned Hitchcockian camerawork, effective use of seemingly innocent 50's pop (Sixteen Reasons never sounded creepier) as counterpoint to Lynch's dark brushstrokes all work to near-perfection. This is a shot in the arm for those who are giving up on cinema.
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6/10
An earnest, but not entirely sucessfull attempt at filming the unfilmable.
21 December 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Being a lifelong fan of the book, and having re-read it just weeks prior to the viewing, it is completely impossible for me to give Peter Jackson's FOTR an reasonable evaluation from an artistic standpoint. I couldn't help but dissect the film scene-by-scene as opposed to perceiving it as one cinematic whole. At times it felt like a protracted illustration and little else. Perhaps a second or third viewing will correct that. For now, on first impression, I can only say that the film was uneven, at times frustrating. Frustrating because some of its aspects worked beautifully; and some were pulling it into quite the opposite direction. Frustrating because Jackson does have a strong personal vision, yet he did make some grave and obvious concessions to Hollywood. Here's the breakdown:

* WARNING! POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*********************************

THE GOOD:

1) Visuals: Landscapes and Architecture. Flawless. Majestic. Alan Lee as design consultant worked miracles. And furthermore, it made New Zealand a lucrative travel destination for me.

2) Certain Actors. Specifically portraying Gandalf, Bilbo, Sam, a few others... mostly dead-on, much like I always imagined.

3) The "creative license" scenes. Surprisingly enough, most of them did not detract from the movie, and even enlivened it a bit. Arwen's involvement did not seem out of place, and her "flight to the ford" scene is easily one of the finest setpieces of the whole 3 hours. In fact, I would have liked to see even more of her. The allusions to various chapter titles were in good spirit, and the comic relief for the most part worked decently, although it was somewhat upsetting to see Merry and Pippin reserved strictly for that purpose. The subtitled Elvish was a nice touch, in part because it eliminated the prospect of listening to Aragorn's and Arwen's romantic dialogue in English (!)

4) Action Scenes. Nicely staged, esp. the entire Moria sequence.

THE MEDIOCRE:

1) Heavy Cuts. It's true that the film is rushed. The only clues to how much time elapses between various scenes are periodic edits to the transformation of Isengard, and that is insufficient. Many scenes feel shortened in order to meet the 3 hour obligation, especially those of Lorien and I would hope the more complete version makes it to DVD.

2) At times, overdramatic. Some of the players' approach is not very authentic, overly self-aware, Elrond most of all. Aragorn and Boromir overact on occasion, but sparingly. Saruman and Gandalf, bellowing spells at each other across mountain passes come off as a pair of grand opera singers.

3) Derivative Effects. While impressive in their own right, the Wizard duel scene, Cave Troll, and Balrog seem to be inspired by latter-day videogames rather than by Tolkien's descriptions.

THE BAD:

1) Frodo's cleanliness. While Elijah Wood's undoubtedly put his heart and soul into the role, his physical appearance was just a tad bit overpolished. He resembled a CGI model rather than a living, breathing hobbit. And throughout the film, not a speck of dirt seemed to have touched him - does being the ringbearer automatically merit a daily bath in wartime conditions?

2) Prologue. Cheezy and unnecessary. Much of it is repeated through subsequent flashbacks anyway. Could have done without it and went on straight to the original storyline. The initial shot of Sauron holding up the ring is laughable, straight out of a grade-Z flick.

3)The Soundtrack. Atrocious, absolutely atrocious. The single element of FOTR that tipped the scale toward the negative for me. If it was used half as much, the movie would have been greatly eleveated in my mind. But this generic tripe...too closely reminiscent of Titanic for comfort. Remember that scene in South Park where a character is tortured by Enya's music? - well, that's precisely how I felt.
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Swordfish (2001)
Apotheosis of Recent Trends in Bad Movies.
14 June 2001
The numerous blatant allusions (i.e., rip-offs) of other, superior cienma (anything Tarantino, "Usual Suspects"), and inferior cinema ("Con Air", "The Matrix") are beside the point. This is horrid in it's every aspect - including the ultra-glossy cinematography that made everything (regardless of location or weather) look filtered through some sort of dark coke-bottle glass. Even the special effects were so obviously CGI that they failed to impress on any level. My viewing time was evenly divided into laughing at the sheer ineptitude of the thing and its rapid-fire plotholes; and groaning at the cliches, of which the thing was essentially constructed. Not a single line in the script manages to sound authentic - not even that pseudo-hip, self referential monologue which opens the flick. The only question I have is why were the opening lines written in the first place - to mock the audience? But this film's ideal audience would lack the intelligent quotent to realize they're being mocked! Just as Travlota has warned us - this is Hollywood crap. And if Hollywood is no longer interested in reality (in any way, shape or form), then I'm no longer interested in Hollywood.
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Topsy-Turvy (1999)
10/10
brilliant screenplay, great use of words
2 April 2001
Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, essentially the direct ancestors of the Broadway Musical, have lost little of their popularity since Victorian Era's twilight – they are still routinely staged at every half-decent high-school and beyond. The composer / librettist duo's biography is the subject of Mike Leighs first period piece, a surprising departure from his highly improvisational and penetrating dissections of Modern England's working class, yet after a closer look, not surprising at all. The grand theme of the film is of course a tribute to the world of performing art, focusing on the conception and the fleshing out of `The Mikado', a departure itself from the entertainers' previous works – and Leigh's clever metaphor of his own creative process. `Shakespeare in Love'‘s light, shallow treatment of a similar subject is many miles behind such a complex, multilayered and deliciously subtle film. The two central characters with their opposing, yet complimentary temperaments (one stoic, the other epicurean), both exemplary and inexorable Brits, are in a way, two sides of an artistic personality (possibly the director's himself). Other themes and motifs, such as the advent of new technologies, England's questioning of its colonialism, the beginning of cultural exchange between the East and West, add to a deeper and more rewarding experience. The general style is so casual, self assured and devoid of nostalgic gloss, that the seeming impression is that of a camera transported some 120 years into the past and freely navigating amongst the characters as it would today. But perhaps the most welcome and noticeable aspect of this production is the writers' high regard of the English Language, gloriously witty and refined – it is truly put on a pedestal here. Every phrase uttered is perfectly natural and fitting, yet a beauty to behold, without the intervention of `likes' and `you knows' that the Modern world takes for granted.
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10/10
a modern neorealism classic
30 March 2000
The term "neo-neorealsim" was coined in 2009 by A.O. Scott of the New York times, about 10 years after the release of this movie, in response to a new crop of American films using working-class characters, non-professional actors, and rejecting the Hollywood aesthetic. These can largely be traced to the Dogme95 manifesto of the mid-90's, and to the pioneering work of the Dardenne brothers with "Rosetta" highly acclaimed at Cannes in 1999.

"Dreamlife of Angels" is a classic in its own right, filmed at about the same time as "Rosetta". It also takes a few pages from Dogme95, and does a better job following its main principles than its own Danish creators. The only major difference is the use of standard camera equipment, not the frequently annoying home video/hand-held style as dictated by the Dogme school.

This is perhaps one of the few films of the 90's which was able to achieve a complete removal of any sense of distance between the viewer and the screen. Through its intimate and effective cinematography, some phenomenally realistic acting, and total lack of anything one traditionally associates with Hollywood drama (weepy soundtrack, romantic lighting) we almost get to inhabit the same space that the two young female characters do, to experience the same feelings even.

Its realism, which matches if not surpasses the French and Italian classics of the late 40's and 50's, is rather brutal at times, but not easily forgettable by any means. With no original music, no voiceovers, flashbacks or fancy cuts (which, if well-made, could also contribute to a great film, just of a different kind), "Dreamlife of Angels" broke new ground in its unpretentious desire to genuinely move.
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Magnolia (1999)
9/10
Divine Cinema
25 January 2000
A virtual remake of Robert Altman's ambitious but flawed "Short Cuts": same 3 hour running time, same general theme of interconnecting private lives of various Los Angelenos, ending with a similar (albeit far more effective) climactic jolt, yet executed in a completely different style, in a way, far more interesting and progressive than Altman's later work. Little doubt of P.T. Anderson's emergence as a major filmmaker of the new century, remains after seeing this film.

If it wasn't already obvious in "Boogie Nights", the director treats his subjects as if they were characters in a sprawling epic of biblical proportions, in which his own role, quite literally is that of an omnipotent diety who can either answer their prayers, respond to their negative karma in an appropriately ironic manner, or simply demonstrate his power by launching a "plague" or two. And like the patriarchal, Judeo-Christian God , he deeply loves each and every one of his creations, even the most rotten ones, relishing in their troubles and pleas as if they were a collection of Jobs.

The kind of self-indulgent, wrenching melodrama that continuously unfolds across "Magnolia's" reels, rarely appeared in American cinema since the days of Douglas Sirk. But make no mistake about it, this kind of intentional tearjerking is a polar opposite of typical Hollywood fluff. The screenplay may be overwhelming, and occasionally far-fetched, yet in essence it's brutally honest and heartfelt. When it comes to sheer humanism, even the bold "American Beauty" fades in comparison (after all, it was trying to make a social statement more than anything else), although the later was still better structured as a film.

The wonderful cast is given plenty of intoxicating substances to spice up their acting, so for the most part, their emotional string-pulling is well justified. Tom Cruise, an outsider to the indie world, manages what may be his best performance as a walking defense mechanism (complete with references to his "Risky Business" period); while most of the others, just as good, are the director's favorite ensemble who had appeared in his previous movie (William H. Macy as a former child prodigy robbed of his quiz show winnings, and Julianne Moore as a repentant wife of a dying cancer victim).

Imperfections aside, Anderson's maverick achievement defies the bitter cynicism that permeates so many of its thematic counterparts: it's not afraid to get under the character's skin, no matter how unsettling the results may seem.
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Psycho (1998)
Utterly Pointless
21 January 2000
They only allowed Van Sant to remake Psycho , because of the cash he brought in with Good Will Hunting. Otherwise, a Hollywood film of this sort is inconcievable. Never attempted before and probably never in the future, this is the strange case of a strictly musical notion of a "cover" (or is is a "remix"), applied to cinema. Van Sant's "Psycho" is an absurd affair: it would make sense as a theatre production, but then it wouldn't be "shot-for-shot"...

It's difficult to make sense of the director's motives - why retaylor the movie for the 90's, when many of its pretexts are anachronistic by default, most importantly, its PACE? Modern youth, unfamilliar with Hitchock, would most likely be yawning after the first 20 minutes of "Psycho"-babble and anxiously await for Bates to begin the slashing. Reamking a masterpiece usually means completely taking it out of context. Not to mention that Vaughn is awfully miscast. And what in the hell should we make of the little "Van-Sant-isms", that are inserted into the murder scenes, when they should belong back in "My Own Private Idaho" ? They are so out of place that even the intelligent viewers would shrug their shoulders in total befuddlement. Sure, all this madness is entertaining to watch, especially for those who have seen the original, but in the end it's pointless and undeserving an evaluation in its own right.
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Happiness (1998)
8/10
Powerful but flawed
21 January 2000
An ode to universal human misery and the omnipresent deviant, "Happiness" reads almost like the First Principle of Buddhism: all life is suffering. But unlike that newly fashionable religion, the film offers no consolation: it's darker, scarier, more cynical and ironic than virtually anything that came before, short of Greek Tragedy. This is an exaggeration, of course: still, the fate of one of Solondz's resident perverts, a pedophile psychologist ,inspires the very feelings Aristotle himself prescribed to Tragedy: pity and fear. The other characters are pathetic in their own individual ways: no age group or gender is overlooked. Some of the plot developments are indeed so disturbing that even the most desensitized members of the audience cannot help but cringe; after the first ten minutes, it's impossible to remain unaffected. Yes, Happiness can be an amazing experience,but even with all of its emotional arsenal,the movie is no masterpiece. The director is overly preoccupied with sheer contextual impact, or shock value, and seems to neglect some other cinematic ingredients. Esthetically, the film needs to be more concisely structured and better edited, to maintain its momentum. The storylines are intersected at random, not with the brilliant logic of Pulp Fiction. This frequent cutting and pasting becomes confusing and the picture often looses its focus. Some scenes are unnecessarily lengthy, their excessive pauses lessening the immediate visceral effect. Perhaps, if Solondz went back to the editing room and tightened things up a bit, he would have produced a 10. Regardless of its considerable flaws, Happiness is a movie for our times. Anyone who has ever felt rejected, lonely, trapped, or overwhelmed by powerful instincts should find much in common with its losers. Those of us who are more fortunate will sign with relief, those who are less will be reassured that they are not alone.
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Pi (1998)
7/10
pretentious but watchable cult flick
21 January 2000
A cross between Travis Bickle, Henry Spencer (you cannot be truly hip if you don't know either), and your typical high school geek, wanders around NYC trying to find mathematical order in the universe. Along the way, he is being destroyed by his own inexplicable fits and various factions (high class businessmen, Orthodox Jews), who desire to possess the code. Upon close observation, "Pi" is not as revolutionary or original as it may seem. If anything, it recalls David Lynch's astonishing 1978 debut, also black and white. The similarities are many, there's even a "girl next door", albeit more attractive than Lynch's. But Aaronofsky is unclear on which venue to pursue, and his film walks the thin line between Avant-Garde and a contrived Thriller. That is precisely why it can't be totally cohesive or enjoyable. By the second half, the Avant-Garde visions become repetitive, and the Thriller twists all too predictable and even ludicrous. On the other hand, an intense, eeiry and captivating electronica score that captures the whole atmosphere of the movie, is of great help, and the whole premise of a genius making sense of the universe's mechanism is unique and admirable, especially in the light of today's mindless junk cinema. Flawed as it is, Pi is the only film in the past few years which makes the audience contemplate a philosophical point of view they might not be comfortable with. For that it should be praised. Those looking for a true masterpiece of surrealism should rent "Erraserhead" instead.
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6/10
Run, William, Run !
21 January 2000
An entertaining, ultimately shallow, yet well-meaning film, whose numerous verbal anachronisms can be forgiven for its sheer sense of fun. Joseph Fiennes makes for a goofy, doe-eyed Bard, and Paltrow (as his Muse) seems to fit the Elizabethan period well, although aside from her fashionable looks, Gwyneth's acting has little to recommend itself for.

Most of all, the screenplay deals with the world of Theatre, the whole writing/production/staging process, here presented in a freespirited manner that at times rings true, but again, is all too superficial. Obvious visual inconsistencies irritate the eye (notably the mysterious accommodation of Paltrow's sumptuous hair under her tiny boyish disguise-wig ),but not enough to ruin the whole show. Perhaps the movie's biggest saving grace is that it rarely slows down, aside from the obligatory love scenes. Of course, the sex here is overdone and glossed over almost unbearably, but not as bad as in most mainstream genre pieces. If anything, it demonstrates that Miramax is truly no longer an "indie" studio: it has fully accepted all of Hollywood's conventions and restraints.

Also, SIL is notable for the second portrayal of Elizabeth I in '98: (this time around she's in her waning years ), probably in her best known context: exuding royal patronage on Shakespeare; a brief, yet definitive performance by Dench, fresh from playing Victoria in '97.
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Armageddon (1998)
3/10
Celluloid Diarrhoea
21 January 2000
I didn't bother spending a penny on it, but my brother happened to see it for a buck on his college campus. So here's what he thought:

Armageddon is by far the worst piece of cinematic trash since Kevin Kostner's, "The Postman." Due to the enormous amount of technical inconsistencies found in this film, the subject will have to be addressed in my upcoming treatise entitled, "How Armageddon Has Violated Science." Sections will include, Astronomy, Mechanics, Statistics, Thermodynamics, etc... The overall experience of watching this movie can be likened to a trip to the bathroom that has suddenly gone awry. At first the s**t flows smoothly: the menace of the approaching asteroid, and the group of characters that will be pitted against it are given their crude and brief introductions. Regular action movie shit. Nothing to sweat about. Then there is an explosion of diarrhoea which refuses to cease the flow of its mucky blobs for an excruciating two and a half hours. It comes in the form of downright moronic characters whose main repertoire of macho yelling and grunting is framed by MTV style editing which alternately flashes images of gray, crumbling asteroid turf (reminiscent of nothing other than feces), and dimwitted faces of the men. Some action sequences filmed this way actually make even less sense than an average music video. In some places it becomes next to impossible to figure out exactly what's going on, even though the movie's outcome is just as predictable as that of Apollo 13's. Could the world really end? Could these idiots actually save the planet? It's obvious that they will, but by they end you wish that they would all perish. Making violent, gutter trash men the heroes of the picture, the movie also does a terrible injustice to women, making them look like whining, insignificant, subordinate nervous wrecks. "Armageddon's" poor quality and its blatant and distasteful use of US patriotism to please audiences places it behind its horrid rival, "Godzilla." After watching both, an intelligent person will become convinced that a generation of people raised on movies such as these would not survive an encounter with an asteroid.
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6/10
weak directorially, strong performances nevertheless
21 January 2000
The scandal of Tony Kaye disowning his work and condemning New Line who took it away before he could realize his 90-minute cut is well publicized by now. And it's no surprise why the director became so enraged: American History X is definitely in need of major editing. In it's two hour theatrical version, this study of California skinheads seems haphazard and even amateurish at times. The studio's attempt to improve the film actually made it much worse:the picture looks like an effort by an ambitious, self-indulgent high school student assisted by his far less inspired teacher. Most of the black-and-white sequences (flashbacks of Norton's and Furlong's life as skinhead brothers) are much more powerful and beautifully shot than the trite and cheaply melodramatic color scenes set in the present day. One cannot help but contemplate this film's potential on all levels of production: for one, it should have used a more urgent and appropriate soundtrack of modern hip-hop and hardcore instead of the typical Hollywood solution to all dramas which we've all heard literally hundreds of times; and also cut down on the slow motion, arguably the most gratuitous since The Postman. Still, Norton's extraordinary performance and several thought-provoking scenes make one wonder what the movie could have been if Kaye was allowed to perfect his material without intervention.
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Celebrity (1998)
Woody's substitute
21 January 2000
It's no secret that Woody Allen is getting old. Moreover, he seems to have noticed that exhibiting his adventures with women who are often three times younger (Juliette Lewis in "Husbands and Wives", for instance) no longer appeals to the audience. But his obsessive vigor has not been extinguished after all these decades, enabling him to clock out at least one film per year (a feat that no living American director can duplicate). In 1998, Woody has to resort to other venues of expression: a computerized ant and the former Prince of Denmark himself, Kenneth Branagh. For Celebrity, the usually well-articulate and consistently noble Brit transforms into a bumbling, confused version of Allen, laying it on like some sort of an Elvis impersonator: strangely amusing and absurd at the same time. Branagh's act is not terrible by any means, but one cannot help realizing that it's a mere imitation of a master whose style is unique and unreproductible. Aside from this fundamental flaw, and the not-so-subtle "homage" to a certain Fellini masterpiece about a journalist trying to run with the Bohemian pack, (just as Deconstructing Harry the year before was to "8 1/2") , the film is as good as anything that Allen made during the 90's. It's all pure, undistilled Woody: cynical, exhillarating, malevolent toward every aspect and product of society (except old Jazz), and of course, saturated with appropriately hilarious sex jokes. How this doesn't become redundant from one movie to another is known only to the director. As always, the pace is lightning-fast, with virtually no pauses in the dialogue, or dull, lingering shots: something seldom matched in indie film and practically unheard of in Hollywood. The five supporting females are in most excellent form: from Judy Davis (typecast as a neurotic) who inexplicably generates sex appeal, to Winona Ryder, who is simply beyond description. Leo DiCaprio's brief semi-autobiograhpical turn is the definite highlight of what could have been Allen's best film of the decade if he had only tried to create a protagonist whose mannerisms were slightly different from his own.
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98's underrated gem
21 January 2000
Neil leBute is the only US filmmaker who dares to dissect a controversial, sensitive topic of modern relationships without self-censorship, pretentiousness, or falsehood. His work is always in spirit of ultimate realism: unflinching and uncompromising.

While "In the Company of Men", equally brilliant, was a far-fetched, inflammatory meditation on intersexual warfare, his new work is simply a probe into the lives and mores of young middle-class professionals: ix men and women. Together they make a disturbing and very familiar mixture of selfishness, greed, apathy and cruelty; a veritable melting pot of relationship problems.

While all the characters are quite complex, they can still be effectively summarized. Eckhart (Company of Men's villain) is a disfunctional, bumbling loser; Stiller is an amoral, bumbling adulterer, Patrick a selfish, sadistic bastard, Brennman a scheming emotional parasite, Keener a cold, heartless manipulator, Kinski a miserable failure of a wannabe slut. All this adds up to one inevitable truism: lack of communication is the number one destroyer of all relationships. Those who find this film offensive or who claim to "hate" its cast are likely to be even more self-absorbed then the former, living in a vacuum of denial and refusing to accept the reality of contemporary America's ruthless sexual politics.

From the opening chords of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" in a string orchestra rendition, to the concluding "Wherever I May Roam" (the only music in the film), YFAN is as compelling and provocative as today's movies can get.
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