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Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
If you haven't seen this film, go out and rent it right now. Just sit back, relax, have a beer, and watch a terrific movie. It has drama, humor, great acting, a great story, and an ending that hits you right in the gut.
A few weeks from now, maybe a few months, see it again. There is so much of what I like to call "meat" in this film. It's a true story, and a compelling one, but look beneath the immediate to see what this film tells us about the culture of New York City, of America, in the early 1970s. American society was sick and rotting from the inside. Watergate was festering, but had yet to explode into the orgy of political pus which destroyed the Nixon presidency. Vietnam was still being fought in the jungles of Asia and on the streets of America. Generations were clashing, and American culture and society was divided against itself.
None of this context is directly provided by the film, but it is all relevant. Look at the attitude of the mob to the whole situation. That mob is the most fascinating character of the picture. First, they totally support Sonny. They make him a celebrity. He's the classic noble outlaw. Robbing the bank, sticking it to the man, and making the police look at the same time inept, ridiculous, and utterly corrupt. But when a shot is fired, the crowd realizes, for the first time, that their celebrity misfit criminal could be dangerous, and things begin to change. Mulvaney, the bank manager sees it. "That was a foolish thing you did, back there." When it is revealed, shockingly, that Sonny is a homosexual, the mob divides against itself. A small, vocal core of homosexuals begin supporting him, while the rest of the mob, the "mainstream" of American society, turn viciously against him. By the time he is escorted to the airport when the siege is over, the crowd has turned wholly against him, and the cops protect him from the public, rather than the other way around.
The mob is America. Sonny is crime. Not just any crime, but crime born of desperation. Sonny is an outcast from society. He has worked all his life (so we are told), but has never been able to provide adequately for his family. He talks frequently about the pressures he is under (and the pressures he faces on screen mirror the pressures that drove him into his predicament in the first place). He is trapped by a hopeless, helpless urban nightmare, and he's being drowned by the expectations of wife, lover, children, parents, and society itself. He is a Vietnam veteran, and still there is nowhere he can turn for help.
So, he robs a bank and takes hostages. Suddenly, everyone cares about him. The Establishment, suddenly, becomes terribly interested in Sonny's problems. Oh, they despise him, to be sure, and they want him dead. Sonny knows that. But suddenly, he is being listened to. Imagine what might have been if someone out there had been interested in Sonny's problems *before* he robbed the bank.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
This is the final nail in the coffin of the Bond series. Sure, it would have bright spots now and then in the years to come, but this film firmly established once and for all that, by and large, Bond was utter crap and no one wanted it any different.
It's unfortunate that George Lazenby, star of 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", was considered a liability to that film and not given a chance to continue in the role. The true weaknesses of OHMSS was a strong script, believable characters, and a more three-dimensional Bond. Bond fans, conditioned by the slow but steady descent from "From Russia With Love" to "You Only Live Twice", had long ago pledged allegiance to plotless, artless action/spy films. OHMSS was simply too good a film to be accepted as a Bond movie. Fortunately, the producers gave the fans exactly what they wanted: Sean Connery in a dumb, poorly plotted, embarrassing excuse for a feature film. Thus the Bond franchise was saved.
There is not one good thing about this movie. The script is awful. Mr. Wynt and Mr. Kidd are the most absurd homosexuals I've ever seen on film (and yes, I've seen "The Birdcage"). Jill St. John is horribly miscast, and if not for the numerous other flaws of the film, could have ruined it single-handedly. Charles Grey makes a weak and boring Blofeld, but the script undermines (and actually derides) the character all the more. The script never seems to be able to decide if it is pure camp or a tough-guy, gritty action movie. Sean Connery's Bond is utterly the wrong vehicle for camp (though Connery himself excelled at the more consistent and unself-conscious camp of "The Avengers").
"Diamonds are Forever" marks the low point of the Connery era, and one of several low points of the franchise as a whole. The Bond films frequently failed to achieve even a basic level of cinematic quality, but rarely has it produced a film as outright bad as this one.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Nihilism, Cynicism, Sarcasm and Orgasm
Wow, what a great line that is. In this film, Woody Allen again creates a character not entirely dissimilar to himself, and surrounds him with characters to hate him. Some have suggested that this film is a grand, public "mea culpa". Others that it's a middle finger in the face of his critics. As for me..., well, I just don't give a damn.
Deducing facts about a man's life from his movies is a bizarre kind of modern anthropology that doesn't interest me much. I'll leave that to the biographers. What interests me is merely the film. I don't care about Woody Allen at all. I only care about Harry Block. The extent to which Harry and Woody are similar.... I just don't care.
What Woody's fashioned here is an acerbic, acidic, vitriolic powerhouse of a film. He creates the most odious, wretched, hateful anti-hero I've ever encountered. But, in a brilliant move, Woody gives the sharpest, harshest criticisms of the character to the character himself. When he is attacked by one of the many people he has hurt, betrayed, alienated, or simply used, he offers no defense, or a defense so feeble that we know even he is not convinced by it. He agrees with every criticism levelled against him, and takes it another step. Ultimately, in the films hilarious climax, he takes on the Devil himself, proclaiming himself more powerful by virtue of the fact that he's even more despicably evil than Lucifer.
How could a movie this dark be so damn funny? That's what I can't understand. But it is. The technique of blending the line between Harry's reality and Harry's fiction is the freshest, most effective of Woody's directorial flourishes since "The Purple Rose of Cairo". Even the editing, much maligned here on IMDB, is an integral part of the character. It's so rare to see a flashy, attention-grabbing editorial technique actually used for a legitimate artistic purpose. Woody even gives it to us on a silver-platter in the last scene, yet so many seem to miss the point.
The script rambles along in an anarchic jumble. One minute we're seeing the "present", then a flashback, then a fiction. Then, fictional characters begin appearing in the "present" and the lines of demarcation are warped, twisted, blended, and eventually discarded entirely.
If it weren't for the fact that this film is so good on its own merits, I'd be tempted to call it a Woody Allen "Best of" film. There are so many nods to previous films. No Woody Allen fan can see Muriel Hemingway without thinking of "Manhattan". The sister-switch, of course, brings up memories of "Hannah and Her Sisters". We have another take on the "Wild Strawberries" scenario first plummed in "Stardust Memories". We have another famous writer warning a star-struck fan not to fall in love, only to fall in love himself and lose her. The irreverent blending of realities can't help but conjure images of "Annie Hall". It's almost a distillation of all of the quirks and eccentricities that define the public Woody Allen persona.
I consider this film a bookend in Woody's career. His films since "Deconstructing Harry" seem to be moving in a slightly different direction. In a sense, you can see many of his classic films from the late 70s through the early 90s as a grand, gradual build up of pressure, which finally burst forth in this bitter, brutal, vulgar, ugly, distasteful, childish tantrum of a film. It's brilliant. And hilariously funny.
Dark City (1998)
Rich, rewarding film
This film is as layered and as deep as you want it to be. If you're just looking for an exciting sf film with aliens, special effects, and a little nudity thrown in for good measure, this is it. But, if you care to delve a little deeper, there's a lot to explore here.
The principle theme is the link, if any, between memory and identity. All of the characters in this film had lives before the film began. But, they have no memory of those lives, and they have no real connection with those lives. The people who they now think that they are may have nothing whatsoever in common with who they "really" are (or, perhaps more accurately, who they "originally" were).
Consider John Murdoch. We've got here your typical action hero with no memory. He doesn't know he's an action hero, he doesn't know his name is John Murdoch (he deduces it). He is carried along by events, pursued by multiple quarters, has friends he can't remember and can't trust, and begins putting together the pieces of a vast mystery. Eventually, he discovers his true powers and decides to take an active role in the proceedings. Standard sf/action plot (and, based on the trailers, it looks like "The Bourne Identity" will run along similar lines). Of course, as others have noted, it bears a certain similarity to "The Matrix", which is a tour de force of incredible special effects, great fight scenes, and truly horrible acting in service of a shoddy, predictable, and poorly structured script.
But anyway, look beyond that and consider the issues involved. Is John Murdoch a murderer? Consider the question "Who is John Murdoch?" John Murdoch is not a "real" person with a "real" history. He is a fiction. He was created by the Strangers as part of their macabre experiment. According to the Strangers' plan, he is a murderer. Therefore, yes, John Murdoch is a murderer. He caught his wife cheating on him, and snapped, and went out on a rampage killing prostitutes (and seriously, isn't that exactly what you would do?... uh, well, nevermind).
But then, is the character portrayed by Rufus Sewell a murderer? Seems not. He's very disturbed early in the film as he begins to find the evidence that suggests that he killed those prostitutes. He doesn't want to kill prostitutes, has no reason to kill prostitutes, and is very upset at the thought that he may have killed prostitutes. Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that the character portrayed throughout this film by Rufus Sewell is not John Murdoch (though he does have fragments of Murdoch's memories). In fact, in a fascinating twist, John Murdoch ends up being played by Richard O'Brien, which confirms for us, if any confirmation is needed, that Murdoch is a murderer.
What the film seems to suggest, and it's an unappealing idea, is that identity and memory are precisely the same thing. Mr. Hand becomes John Murdoch when he acquires the memories of John Murdoch. Rufus Sewell's character is not John Murdoch because he does not have those memories.
So we reach the conclusion of the film, where we have the primary philosophical dispute between this film and The Matrix. Sewell's character has defeated the Strangers by appropriating their power, and not stands God-like over their abandoned city. He reshapes it according to his own desires. Presumably, with all of his powers, he'd be able to return himself and everyone else to Earth (from whence, presumably, they had been abducted). But he chooses a pleasing fiction over an uncertain reality. This is precisely the choice of Joe Pantoliano's character in The Matrix (and, because his character is a "villain" betraying the heroes, the audience understands this to be the wrong choice). So, The Matrix values truth above experience. Between to alternatives, one good and one bad, the one which corresponds to truth is preferred. The truth-value of the situation trumps whatever other value is concerned. But in Dark City, the truth value is irrelevant. John Murdoch (and now, finally, Sewell is John Murdoch, but a new Murdoch created by Dr. Schreber, not a murderer, but with many of the same core memories, such as Shell Beach and Uncle Karl) freely chooses a life which he knows to be false (because he created it).
I've always said that Joe Pantoliano's character was the only intelligent character in The Matrix. I stand by that. He was wrong to betray his friends, yes, but he was right in recognizing that ignorance is bliss. This film shows us that fact clearly.
It's also a terrific story, well-acted, marvelously directed, with incredible sets, stunning visuals, and a quick pace that never lags.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Noir, with just a hint of comedy
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a very quiet man. He's one of those characters who creates awkward silences in almost every scene, as he fails to play into the standard conversational banalities that everyone else does. Ask him a question, he answers it with as few words as he can. You have the information you asked for, and he fully expects you to be satisfied with that. He doesn't talk about himself much (even as the narrator, he tells you what happened to him, but doesn't tall you directly much about himself at all). This is not a man who shares, or opens up, or anything like that.
I wonder if a character like this is easier or harder to play than a more extroverted character. I imagine it would be harder, and it's definitely harder to make a character like this likable. When a character keeps all of his emotions inside and only allows you to see his actions, which are also meticulously guarded and controlled, it's hard to find him sympathetic. As a result, even when an actor rises to this considerable challenge, as Thornton does in this film, he is often overlooked by moviegoers who consider the performance lacking (e.g., "He didn't do anything!"). Other strong performances underrated for similar reasons are Brad Pitt's in "Meet Joe Black" and Tom Cruise's in "Eyes Wide Shut".
Just look at Thornton's face. It's remarkable. Especially if you've seen at least a few of his other films. You can look at Ed Crane and think "Oh yeah, that's Thornton," but upon reflection, Ed Crane doesn't look much like Thornton's other characters at all. That alone is remarkable. Compare to Kevin Spacey, for instance, who is another excellent actor.... most of his most famous characters look (and often talk) exactly the same. Thornton creates wildly dissimilar characters, even with a script that makes him work overtime to create a character at all.
Not that I'm complaining about the script. The script is masterful. As is the direction and (especially) the cinematography. Yes, it's very slow. I know. If you don't like movies that take their time to delve a little deeper into the characters and story, well... skip this one. But if you're willing to be patient, you're going to see a hell of a story, with some terrific plot-twists, and several remarkable performances. Frances McDormand is rapidly stringing together an impressive array of exceptional performances, just in the last few years. She's had exquisite supporting roles in this film, in Wonder Boys, and in Almost Famous. And that's ignoring her previous work in films like pre-Fargo films like Blood Simple, where she was no less accomplished, but a lot less recognized.
If you're a Coen brothers fan, I think you'll like this. I am, and I did, so... why not? But this is a different sort of Coen film than I've seen before (as most of them are). There is humor in this film, but it is very low key, very understated, and very beside the point. The humor works to alleviate the tension at key moments (usually at moments when most films would be upping the tension, which is a nice change of pace). The humor also exists to alienate Ed Crane from everyone else. Ed doesn't seem to respond to humor.
I've only seen this movie once, and I should like to see it again soon. The one thing that doesn't really sit well with me is some of the things that fly in from left field, like the UFOs, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and so on. They certainly have the effect of introducing some recognizable Coen absurdities to the proceedings, but they seem to undercut the loving homage to the noir era that the film tries so hard to get across. I'm not sure what the intention was with that stuff, but it didn't damage my enjoyment of the film.
The Cider House Rules (1999)
More than just abortion
Unfortunately, it seems impossible to discuss this film without talking about abortion. But reading through the many comments on this site, it seems to me that a whole lot of people viewing the film were sidetracked by the abortion issue, and missed the real heart of the story.
But, just to get it out of the way, let's do this thing. I really don't understand why pro-life people get so up in arms about this movie. I understand finding abortion horrible, sinful, or evil. That makes sense to me. But very few people really look at this film on its own terms. Everyone is reading into it a grand liberal scheme to propagandize abortion, and to make it seem like a good thing. I don't know, maybe there is such a scheme, but so what? The film can be interpreted in any number of ways, many of them without a pro-choice slant.
Many people see the film in terms of an ongoing argument between Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) and Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), which, in the end, Dr. Larch wins. In other words, Homer is eventually persuaded of the rightness of Dr. Larch's views and actions. This may indeed be what the author attempted to say (I've never read the book, which would perhaps shed some more light on it), but I really don't think it's as simple as that.
First of all, Homer is never, at any point in the film, your typical pro-life kind of guy. He explicitly says, very early on, that he has no objection whatsoever to Dr. Larch performing abortions. He clearly has moral qualms about the practice, but he only objects to being asked to perform them himself. In modern political terms, he would have to be considered pro-choice. So this film does not represent the victory of pro-choice over pro-life. It represents the victory of pragmatism over idealism.
Homer has a very idealistic vision of his role in life. He wants to be "of use", but he feels that performing abortions should not be necessary to that function. Dr. Larch argues that performing abortions is very necessary, because the alternative is far worse for all involved. Dr. Larch does not advocate abortions to pregnant women. He does not delight in terminating pregnancies. He terminates pregnancies in a manner which is safe to the mother when the alternative is that the mother will find other, more dangerous means to reach the same end. Sure, the world would be better if no one ever needed or wanted an abortion, but they do, and given that fact, we have to adjust. You can't ever eliminate the practice of abortion, so shouldn't those abortions that do occur be performed by competent professionals?
This is the lesson that Homer learns. Incidentally, the specific case which compels Homer to relax his personal moral opposition to abortion is exactly a case to which most pro-lifers admit an exception; the case of incest. So, I really can't comprehend the vitriol with which pro-lifers often attack this film.
But anyway, forget about that. This movie is a coming of age story featuring terrific characters, excellent performances, and a strong story. There's so much more to this film than abortion. The character of Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) is one of the most fascinating characters I've ever seen. He is a hideous monster, capable of unimaginable cruelty. But he is also a kind man. This sort of moral contradiction happens so frequently in life, yet so rarely in films. For that character alone, and for the performance of Mr. Lindo, this film deserves high praise.
Basically, I think the film is about a journey of discovery, as trite as that sounds. Homer lives for years in a very stable, organized, structured, and protected environment. He is nurtured, cared for, and sheltered. Once he leaves the orphanage, he enters a world that is far more complex than what he's used to, and that complexity makes a mockery of all of his noble, altruistic aims. "There's no helping anyone... not out there," Dr. Larch says. He's not exactly right, but he's right enough. Homer's simple good nature is unequipped to deal with the moral ambiguities and contradictions of real life. Candy says she loves him, and maybe she does, yet she hurts him mercilessly. Candy loves her husband, but betrays him. Homer, in his simplicity, is swept up into this moral quagmire when he betrays his friend, Candy's husband. His eventual return to the orphanage could be seen as a retreat from the realities of life, but he isn't trying to protect himself from the harsh world. He's going back to the only controlled environment he's ever known, an environment within which he is able to be far more effective in his ceaseless desire to be "of use".
This film has such a simple, graceful arc, and some really lovely cinematography. It has, as I said, strong compelling characters well acted. It has a terrific script full of insight, wonder, sadness, and love. It has Charlize Theron's bare buttocks. [Sorry, I lost my composure for a moment.] If people didn't get so caught up in the abortion thing, I think this film would be much more popular than it is.
The Conversation (1974)
When film directors took risks....
They just don't make films like this anymore. If this were made today, it would be resolved with a guns blazing action scene. It would not be character-based, it would be plot-based. The pace would be much faster. There would be more sex, and it would be more explicit. All the subtlety and nuance would be lost. Watching this film today is heart-wrenching. We've lost so much.
Harry Caul is arguably the greatest role of Gene Hackman's career. Part of the reason for this has to do with Francis Ford Coppola. In this film, Coppola subordinates every element of the film to Harry's character. Everything that is going on is designed to not just explain and reinforce what kind of man Harry is, but to actually, as closely as possible, give us his experiences. The film forces us, through repetition, to listen to the titular conversation in the same way that Harry does. The film's very slow pace allows for the meticulousness of the character to be fully explored and understood by the audience. Harry constructs a barrier between himself and all the other characters in the film. In the same way, the film constructs that barrier between the viewer and those characters. They are superficial characters, for all we see of them, and we never get even a peek at the underlying substance of any of them. Again, this puts in not only in a position to understand and empathize with Harry, this puts us as directly as possible in Harry's position. Harry is paranoid (or rather, becomes paranoid), and through the brilliant, gradual development of this aspect of his character, and the gradual development of the film's plot, the audience becomes paranoid right along with him.
This film needs to be seen many times. Having seen it three or four times, there are still lots of elements of this that I haven't come to grips with. But when you are watching it, it is immediately apparent that you are watching something from a bygone era in film-making. No one seems to have the courage, anymore, to make films like this. I'd much rather see a film which cuts corners on plot to create room for character than the other way around. I cherish this film.
Panic Room (2002)
How can people call this film "predictable" with a straight face? I mean, sure it's predictable, but only in the sense that every thriller is predictable. The ending will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen a movie before. The good guys are fine, the bad guys are captured or killed. Ok, so in that regard, it is predictable.
But to criticize the film on this score is an immense injustice. First, like I said, practically all films are predictable in this sense. I mean, come on! Did anyone for a second think that Han, Luke, and Chewie *wouldn't* rescue the Princess? Did anyone really think that the Raiders of the Lost Ark might not find have found it? Did anyone really think that the cute children in "Jurassic Park" wouldn't survive? No!! All movies are predictable. Not all, but all of them that anyone wants to go and see. Get used to it.
Plus, it's only the final result that's predictable. To continue the chess metaphor I've seen other reviewers adopt (Ebert, I think it was), you know going in the final position of the pieces, and you know who will have won. But in this film, as in chess, as in... I don't, basketball, it isn't the result that matters. It's the journey from the opening, through the middle, to the destination, that's important. This film gives us a seemingly perfect stalemate situation... good guys can't get out, can't get help, bad guys can't get in, won't leave. The situation cannot remain in equilibrium forever, but there is no immediately apparent way for either side to break to deadlock.
But, pretty soon, they start thinking. One side comes up with a plan, puts it in action. The other side responds. Stalemate restored. These plans are ingenious and plausible, and situations that result are tense and exciting. Tension and excitement are common commodities in thrillers, but let me repeat: ingenious and plausible. When's the last time you saw a thriller whose plot was ingenious and plausible. I can't recall.
That's what makes this film so good. It's not a groundbreaking, visionary work. It's just a film that has an abundance of Hollywood's rarest and most precious asset, simple quality. Do people even appreciate quality anymore? I don't know.
Resident Evil (2002)
This film is extremely bad... among the worst I've ever seen. But I loved it anyway. The script was just terrible. I mean, the plot is extremely flimsy, not one character in the film is worthy of the term, and the whole thing is just a big budget excuse to to make a movie about zombies. It doesn't have any of the tension of the original video game, it doesn't have any of the characters of the original game, and, in fact, it bears remarkably little resemblance to the game at all.
Some people seem to think it's a prequel to the game. I don't understand how that works, exactly. I mean, the end of the movie looks exactly like the beginning of Resident Evil 2 (the game), so it's a prequel to the game's sequel. I don't know. But don't think about it. Just enjoy the cheese.
Like that elevator scene in the beginning. Tremendous. So bad you can't help but love it. The whole audience cheered when that happened. Great.
Just to illustrate how little this film cared about it's characters, I'd like to point out that Alice's name is never mentioned on screen until the final credits. I actually stayed in the theater and waited because I wanted to know her name. Apparently, she didn't want to know. Because even after meeting someone she believed knew her, she didn't ask. Of course, that begs the question why was she suffering amnesia at all? From a production point of view, it's a convenient (if hackneyed) way to introduce suspense. Or maybe, since the story was so bad, they wanted to conceal it from the audience for as long as possible. So, give your protagonist amnesia, and suddenly, none of the characters know what's going on, so the story doesn't present itself to the audience until long after the zombie brain-munching buffet has begun. But, from a fictional point of view, why would the computer have done that? Trust me, though, that is absolutely the smallest one of many, many plot inanities.
This movie it truly wretched. Unless you have a soft spot for big-budget b-movies starring talented actors masquerading as vacuous eye-candy, stay far far away.
But like I said, I loved it.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
A trifling, insignificant little film
You're not going to believe this, but the film I was most strongly reminded of when I watched "Moulin Rouge" was "Mission: Impossible 2". Both Baz Luhrmann and John Woo have developed a very recognizeable visual style, and both of them are perfectly willing to tear a script to shreds in order to maximize the visual effect of their films. Each film is an empty, dessicated husk of a motion picture, lacking any real content or substnace at all. Both are pleasant to look at and, if one's standards are sufficiently low, passably entertaining. The fact that one is an action movie and one a musical seems a very minor difference to me.
The plot of "Moulin Rouge" is both hackneyed and bad, which is a disasterous combination. But then, this is a musical, intended for a musical audience. A musical audience is one for whom singing and dancing are more important than plot and story. Similarly, M:I2 is an action movie, intended for an action movie audience, for whom chases, fights, and explosions are more important than plot and story.
And what's all this bellyaching about the film being overlooked for Best Director and Best Editing awards by the Academy? The editing was a significant drawback to the film. The pace was so frenetic that it was impossible to develop any sort of emotional attachment to any of the characters. The direction was extremely clumsy. Check out my review of "Apocalypse Now," the bit at the end where I talk about Brando's performance. Coppola pointed a camera at Brando and filmed a great actor at work. Now, there's no Brando in this movie, but the cast is very talented. It is not necessary to provide a few seconds of menacing slow motion when Zidler orders Satine to stop seeing Christian, because Broadbent is a talented actor (who has finally been recognized, hooray!) who is perfectly capable of delivering the line with all the menace you need. Coppola is a genius and Luhrmann is hack precisely because Coppola knows what his job is, and Luhrmann doesn't.
Luhrmann constantly uses the camera, the editing, or some distracting special-effects shot to unnecessarily underscore points that the actors are perfectly capable of making themselves. Compare to Oliver Stone, whose own ingenious editing style has been harshly attacked by many critics and filmgoers. In "Any Given Sunday", Stone uses editing to allow characters to clearly convey multiple emotions simultaneously. Pacino delivers a line laced with nostalgia and regret, while an image of Pacino screaming in rage appears silently on the screen. Stone uses his camera to give the audience information in addition to what the actor is giving. Luhrmann uses it to give the audience the same information, only without subtlety or grace.
Basically, take "Shakespeare in Love", get rid of the wit, dumb-it-down a bit, throw in spectacular sets and costumes (credit where due), sing some anachronistic songs (which was sacrilege in "A Knight's Tale" but somehow genius here... go figure), and there you are. "Moulin Rouge".
Many say you either love this film or hate it. I obviously don't love it, but I don't hate it either. There's nothing there to hate. There's nothing there at all.
Brilliant Modern Noir
Film noir doesn't get any better than this. Gone are the cookie cutter cliches that litter the less imaginative of the genre. Instead, we have a film propelled by a rare depth, attention to detail, and desire for realism. Thanks to the more permissive cultural environment surrounding filmmaking in the 1970s, we get a movie of haunting power which would be as impossible to make today as it would have been in the 40s.
All the elements of classic film noir are present. We have a tough, gritty private detective. On the outside, he's a cold man. But we sense a great weight on his shoulders, and in the end we see that he is motivated more than he lets on by heroic qualities hidden in his own nature. We have a beautiful, mysterious, and quite possibly dangerous "femme fatale". We have a convoluted plot, which seems to kick off simply enough, but soon spirals out of all control. We have color photography.
Wait a minute? Black and white photography is a staple of film noir! How you have film noir in color? I don't know, but it works. The film has a kind of dry, parched look to it. The colors are very dull and muted. Everything is sort of drab and brown. It's a wonderful look, and it's essential to the ambience of the film.
But what really makes this stand out from the crowd is the realism of the story. J. J. Gittes is a far more real character than Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Like those who came before him, Gittes has a casual, relaxed demeanor, a sharp sense of humor, and a no-nonsense tough-guy persona. But he's not half as slick as those others. His dialogue, every bit as colorful as Marlowe's or Spade's, has far less of the Hollywood polish and wit to it.
The story is really remarkable. Of course, the censors would have gone insane over this script back in the 40s. I mean, not only is it a lot too sexually explicit, but the ending is all wrong. This is what makes "Chinatown" such a great film in its own right, and not just another modern homage to great films of the past. It takes full advantage of the tenor of the times to create a story that couldn't have been done before.
The story is very complex and challenges the viewer to connect their own dots. The big picture is easy enough to understand, but the details are easy to overlook. Fortunately, "Chinatown" stays focused on the story, and never lets the stars get in the way.
I'm shocked to see people disapproving of the ending of this film. I'm even more shocked to see that scriptwriter Bob Towne disagreed with Polanski over it during the production of the film. How could this film end any differently? The whole thing is constantly building up this idea of Chinatown, where the best thing to do is as little as possible. In order for the film to hang together, to stay true to its thematic core, there must be a tragic ending. This isn't Roman Polanski shooting a dark film to fit his dark mood, this is a capable and astute director filming the only ending that matters. If the film had ended the other way, you could still say it was a very good film. I mean, the cast would still be uniformly excellent. The story would still be fascinating and shocking. The cinematography would have been the same. But it's heart would have been cut out. And it could never have been the classic that is today.
This is one of the very best films ever made.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
This is probably the most intellectually challenging film I've ever seen. I'm really not sure I understand more than a handful of what's happening in this film. I mean, the story is easy enough to follow, and several of the themes become apparent on repeated viewings, but a lot of peculiarities remain. Much of the supporting cast performs their roles with a high degree of stylized exaggeration. I'm not sure what Kubrick was going after with all of this.
Still, at the very least, it's a damn good film that I really enjoy watching.
But every time I do, I'm thrust back into that dame dilemma. What does the ending of this film signify? Clearly, Alex has managed to indulge in thoughts of a highly anti-social nature without being torn apart. So, the effects of the Ludovico treatment are gone. So, what now? The legendary story of the censored final chapter of Burgess's novel has this answer. To viewers who complain about the abrupt ending, you have government censorship of literature to thank. I know what Burgess's take on this was, having familiarized myself with the true ending of the story. But what is Kubrick's take? What does Kubrick think he is saying with this film? Has Alex learned something from his ordeal? It looks like he has not, in which case, the only point of the film seems to be that it is better to be free and evil than a good slave. On this level, the film is more relevant now, in this age of personality- altering drugs people take for depression or ADD. Is complete loss of self to high a price to pay for the elimination of undesirable behavior?
The film is an excellent jumping off point for the topic of criminal justice. Specifically, what is the purpose of incarceration? Do we imprison criminals in order to protect society from them? To reform them? Or to have revenge upon them? It's a particularly fascinating question here in America, since the Death Penalty is still a very living issue for us. You can find in this film loads of material to fuel an energetic discussion on the topic.
But again, I'm at a loss to understand what the driector had in mind. It doesn't concern me. This film is thought-provoking. When I watch it, or even think on it, my mind spirals off into all sorts of issues raised by it. I don't know which issues, or which positions, the director intended to support, if any. And I don't care. It is enough, in my view, that the film provokes thought and discussion.
Added to that, it is simply an enjoyable film to watch, with an intriguing (if slowly developed) story. The structure of the film is beautiful. Slowly, patiently, it builds up an intimate portrait of Alex's pre-prison life. Then, slowly and patiently, it takes us with Alex through prison, through the Ludovico treatment, and to his eventual release. Then, in the third act, it slowly and patiently takes us back again through his previous crimes. Encounters with his parents, with his former friends, and with his former victims tell another story. The one thing that I do think the film is saying, quite clearly, is that people have a natural, emotional desire for animalistic revenge. Toss out the high-minded theories we were discussing earlier. When we hurt, we need to make someone else hurt worse.
As usual, a very dark, pessimistic film about the terrible flaws in human nature.
When you've seen many films by the same director, and you consider yourself a fan of that director's work in general, it is almost impossible to approach a particular film without a certain set of expectations. This isn't fair, no, but it's inevitable. While I will certainly admit that "Celebrity" is far from Woody Allen's best work, I did endeavor to focus on the film itself and try to ignore the disappointments that come from dashed expectations. In that light, I'm pleased to report that "Celebrity" is a good film.
First, let's get something out of the way. I'm sick to death of people complaining about Kenneth Branaugh imitating Woody Allen. Ok, so if you happen to find it irritating, well, then it'll pretty much ruin the movie for you. That's fair. But I don't find it irritating in the least. Moreover, I think it's a legitimate artistic choice which succeeds in what it sets out to do.
Consider: it wasn't Woody Allen's idea for Branaugh to ape his own screen persona. In fact, Allen did all he could to discourage Branaugh from this approach, because he knew critics would skewer it. But Branaugh decided to play it that way regardless. Why? Well, perhaps to make it funny. Looking at the script, it's a perfect role for Allen to have played himself, and Allen would have made it extremely funny. However, the role really needed a younger, more handsome actor. So, what's the ideal solution? Get a younger, more handsome actor to deliver the same performance Woody Allen would have. You can debate all you want whether or not this is a good idea (as, presumably, Allen and Branaugh did), but I think it's a legitimate artistic decision.
Anyway, it isn't Branaugh that pulls this film down, in my opinion. It's the lack of focus. Allen's films frequently include a number of major characters. This allows him to explore an issue from several different viewpoints. He does this here, but "Celebrity" seems to lack the central core that binds most of his films together. It's exploring the idea of celebrity, and raising all sorts of questions and issues about it, but it seems to lack a coherent, central thesis. It doesn't seem to have any strong premise at all.
So, the film consists of disconnected pieces fitting together into a sort of formless, unsatisfying whole. But the pieces are funny, insightful, well-acted, and gorgeously shot. So how bad can it really be?
Plus, I think what framework the film does have is overlooked by most of the audience. Some viewers here have said that the film is about making movies in contemporary Hollywood. It's not. That is one aspect of celebrity that this film explores. But this film is packed with almost every conceivable form of celebrity, from movie star to senator to literature critic to TV weather man to coma patient. Yet people seem to fixate on the Leonardo DiCaprio sequence (in my opinion, the weakest part of the film). Why? Perhaps because Leo is such a celebrity.
As usual for Allen, this film boasts a tremendous supporting cast of famous and not-so famous actors. Charlize Theron, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Hank Azaria and Winona Ryder all put in strong performances in supporting roles of various depths. The only weak link, acting wise, is DiCaprio, who is entirely unconvincing.
This film, while quite legitimately not numbered among Allen's strongest films, has never the less been unfairly maligned. It's funny, it raises interesting issues and makes insightful points about it's subject matter, and it looks great. What more do you want?
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
It is very unusual to find a film take such a hard long look at religion. What's more unusual is that the film is so entertaining at the same time. Of course, mention that the film was written and directed by Woody Allen, and it suddenly doesn't seem so unusual after all.
Although, Woody Allen hasn't explored issues of religion all that often in his films. He frequently meditates on cultural issues involved in being Jewish (Annie Hall, Deconstructing Harry), and God pops up in lots of his movies in some way or another. But I haven't seen any other his films which even come close to the level of legitimate theological thesis as "Crimes and Misdemeanors".
The set-up is pure Woody Allen. There are a bunch of characters, a couple of different plots (major and minor), great performances from familiar faces, and humor, all tied together in some central thematic idea. The idea of this film is God's justice. If God is always watching, and God punishes the wicked and rewards the good, it shouldn't be hard to see evidence of this in the world around us. This film follows various characters, some good, some mostly good, and some horribly wicked, and examines their fortunes. If God really is how he is described, the good characters should do well.
The good characters do very badly. The wicked characters end up quite well off.
What's the point Woody is making by this? That there is no God? Or that, if there is, he doesn't particularly care whether you're good or wicked? Maybe. But whatever Woody was trying to get across, it's certainly food for thought, and it's totally deliberate. The same set-up of plots and characters could have been resolved very differently. Judah could have gone to jail and Lester could have ended up lonely, alone, and infected with the clap. From the writing standpoint, Woody could have taken this film either way. That he chose to go the way he did is significant. It's also more intellectually honest. Woody is pointing out a problem that should be of concern to all people who have a similar conception of God as the supreme arbiter of justice. The simple fact is that the world is not just, and the wicked do not always pay. This could be a major challenge to certain religious points-of-view.
As for me, I'm an atheist. I just like the jokes.
That's not entirely true. Even an atheist can enjoy, as an intellectual exercise, a good discussion of theology. But, I also do enjoy the jokes. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is basically a straight drama, like "Interiors" or "Another Woman". Only this time, there is a character with a great sense of humor played by Woody Allen. Almost all of the humor of this film comes from the character of Clifford Stern. Stern is a funny guy who says funny things, and his being in this movie makes it funny. His documentary on his brother-in-law (wonderfully realized by Alan Alda) is a particular highpoint.
What makes this film great, though, is its script. I think "Crimes and Misdemeanors" may be Allen's greatest achievement as a writer. Everything fits together in a way that is so simple, elegant, compelling, and true. This characters are real people, and the issues they raise are real issues.
Charming, delightful, and very good
Ok, so it's Hitchcockian. Enough already.
The story of this film is wonderful. Sure, while everybody gets distracted by watching Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn cavorting happily through Paris (and very distracting they are), the story of this film really deserves more credit than it gets. The location of the hidden money is very clever, all the more so for being right under everyone's nose all along (including the audience). In addition to an intriguing story filled with colorful characters, this film is also packed with terrific dialogue of the "witty banter" variety. This contributes enormously to the film's charm, which, other than its stars, is its most bankable asset. No wonder it is so well-regarded.
I'm frankly puzzled by people who seem to resent the fact that this film is compared to Hitchcock. As though anyone attempting to imitate Hitchcock must be, by definition, a fawning little hack. Stanley Donen is no hack, and he wasn't fawning. He realized that Hitchcock was monopolizing a genre he didn't invent, and thought "Why should he be the only person allowed to make such films?" Now, Donen doesn't have the reputation Hitchcock has, which is understandable enough. When compared to films like "Rear Window" or "Vertigo", "Charade" looks rather slight and unimportant. But it stands toe-to-toe with a film like "North by Northwest", and is stronger, I'd say, than "Notorious" or "Strangers on a Train", just to pick out a few examples. The blending of comedy, romance, and suspense is a difficult one to pull off, and Hitchcock didn't always get it right. "Charade" does.
The only complaint I have is a small plot detail. Granted that Cruikshank must adopt a false identity for the purpose of a) deceiving the "Marx brothers" and b) finding out whether or not Reggie is involved, he gives Reggie one or two more false identities than he has to. He tells her he's Peter Joshua, then that he's Alexander Dyle, fine. But by the time his Dyle persona is blown apart, she already trusts him for the most part (as evidenced by the ease with which she accepts his rather thin story about being a thief), so why not just tell her the truth?
But it's a small flaw, and it doesn't do anything at all to undermine the enjoyment one takes in this lovely and endlessly watchable film.
what can I say?
I have practically nothing to say about this film. Apparently, some people seem not to like it. This is utterly baffling to me. The vast majority of people seem to love it, which is my idea of justice. This film deserves to be adored.
There are two different kinds of Great Films, in my mind. One is the film that quite obviously sets out to be great, and succeeds. Something like "Lawrence of Arabia", "Citizen Kane", "Schindler's List", just about everything Kubrick ever did. That sort of thing. Films that are oozing with ambition, and manage to carry it off. "Casablanca" isn't like that. "Casablanca" is a small film, a simple film, and it doesn't have that ambition behind it. This film isn't trying to make a statement, or to do something bold, new, and shocking. It's great simply by virtue of being very, very good.
The primary credit for this goes to those responsible for the script, including the actual scriptwriters, and the authors of the play upon which it was based. The central premise of this film is the bizarre tangle of motivations involving Rick, Ilsa, and Victor. That idea is both elegantly simple and breathtakingly effective. [There again, a common theme in my reviews of late... simplicity and power are natural allies.] The performances by Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid are fully up to the task, bringing out every nuance of the situation.
This film also sports one of the all time great supporting casts, including big names like Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. But there isn't a single performance in the entire film which rings false. This also has a lot to do with pulling this film up from a good one to a great one.
For those who don't like this film, well, I don't know what to say. The attitude is incomprehensible to me. But that's all right. As long as you've seen it, that's enough. I think there are a few things that are so good, so useful, and beneficial, that everyone should do them at some point. Take piano lessons. Study elementary economics. Watch "Casablanca". And if you don't like it, fine, you don't like it. But you just have to see it.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
This film throws you around the room. It moves effortlessly between various tones and moods, and delivers real emotional shocks regularly. I've seen dark films, I've seen comedies, and I've seen dark comedies, but this is something really remarkable. It's not a dark comedy. It's dark, and it's funny. But the darkness isn't a part of the humor. The humor is a mechanism used by the characters to deal with the darkness and desperation of their situation. This is my favorite kind of humor; humor that comes from within the characters. No one here is trying to be funny. No one is going for a laugh. They're just living, dealing with the world, each other, everything. It's so human, so natural.
But I didn't come here to talk about comedy. This film has so much to say, and I want to touch on some of it. Predictably, a lot of it is about death. It isn't, though, about dying. It's about surviving the deaths of others. It's about how death impacts the survivors. The entire film touches on this theme. An EMT on a cold streak is a perfect vehicle for exploring this issue.
So that's the plot. Not much, is it? Deal with it.
Frank Pierce is a man whose mental health is hanging by a string. He is aware of this (in the narration, he comments on it), but not fully. For much of the film, he is totally out of control. Much of his behavior is motiveless (insofar as any human behavior can be). He is not consciously aware of any real goals. He's just running. He doesn't even understand why. A character like this represents a tremendous challenge to writer and to the actor. Paul Schraeder handles it magnificently, Nicolas Cage handles it just about as well as can be expected (Nicolas Cage, for the record, is a really bad actor).
Mary is also motiveless. She wants her father to live, obviously. But does she? She seems almost ambivalent about it throughout much of the film. She's more concerned about his pain and suffering, and I suspect (as I believe the audience is meant to) that she would approve of Frank's decision to end her father's agony. But she's torn. She's not clear in her own mind what she wants, so, she turns to drugs as an escape. Such a cliche concept, right? Well, yes, I suppose so. But look at her reaction. She admits being weak and foolish, and she seems ashamed. Not the sort of shame you get when your mommy catches you with the cookie jar, but the shame you feel when you've let yourself down. It's an attitude we don't see often in films, especially with respect to drugs. Nice touch.
Another interesting angle is that the characters who do seem to have a sense of purpose in their lives seem either ignorant or warped. The warped category includes Frank's three partners, and Cy. The ignorant category includes the doctors and nurses, who deal with the same tragic circumstances Frank deals with, but from the safety of a totally artificial environment. They have an eerie, almost evil detachment from the suffering they see.
That's what makes this film so dark. We are shown Frank's life (his inner life) and given a keen awareness of his desperation, yet he seems altogether more sane then practically every other character in this film.
The usual Scorsese strengths are here: magnificent images, stunning cinematography (I've never seen anything that looks remotely like this film), and a terrific soundtrack, expertly utilized (the wailing harmonica as ambulance siren in the opening shot is a particularly effective detail). The script is a triumph. The supporting cast is perfect. Every last one of them is perfect. If only Nic Cage weren't so.... bad.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
of course it's funny
Of course it's funny, it's Woody Allen, but there is so much more. This is true of so many of the man's films. He claims his only goal in making movies it to give people a simple piece of entertainment, a pleasurable couple of hours. I'm sure it is. But the fact that he fills his movies with so much more than is a testament to his genius. Like Hitchcock, his movies are enjoyable on their face, but there's some real meat there too, if you're hungry.
Take the scene where David and Flender are talking with a bunch of their friends early in the film. It seems like an utterly disposable scene. Charming, funny, but light. Not necessary. Couldn't be more wrong. This simple scene contributes enormously to the film as a whole. On the simple level, it establishes the character of Flender, which is crucial, given the role this character plays in the denouement. It also provides a link between Flender and Ellen, which is crucial for the same reason. It also plays an enormous part in establishing the artistic milieu. Since the premise of the film is the mixing of artists and gangsters, and moreover, the mixing of their worlds (their attitudes, values, drives), it's vital to show the artisitc characters operating exclusively in their own world. But it also presents a philosophical point of view, in one, small, easy to overlook exchange. Which would you save, some random human being, or the work of Shakespeare? David says Shakespeare, and Flender agrees. But the same argument is repeated late in the film between David and Cheech, and David's answer is different. This is the thematic crux of the film.
Along the way, of course, we're treated to oodles of jokes, gags, one-liners, and some truly remarkable comic performances from the supporting cast. Dianne Wiest deserves that Oscar, no doubt. She is magnificent in a very tricky part. She makes her character outrageously funny without stepping over that nebulous line beyond which humor degrades the character. Helen Sinclair is not a vehicle for delivering laughs. She is a character.
And who knew that Woody Allen could make gangsters so funny. I mean, we all know gangsters are funny. The Godfather films, Scorsese's gangster pictures, and "The Sopranos" all have plenty of humor. But these gangsters are totally credible in a way that they often aren't in "mob comedies". It's a tricky thing to pull off. Having Palminteri helps immensely. The man has an overlooked gift for comedy. Sure, he was in "Analyze This", but as the straight man/villain. The man can do comedy, and this proves it. It also helps that Allen has such a gift for dialogue. "It stinks on f***ing hot ice." I don't know what it means, but it's hysterical.
I've seen a lot of commentators talk about Cusack "doing Woody". I can't tell if you're flattering Cusack or insulting him. If Woody had played David Shayne, he would have done it very differently, I think. Cusack doesn't have, and did not emulate, Allen's distinctive vocal cadence. His physicality was utterly different. Looking at the lines, just the lines, it could be a Woody Allen character. But Cusack did it his way, and it works wonderfully.
Enough outta me.
Brief Encounter (1945)
A Breath of Fresh Air
What a breath of fresh air this film is!!
I watched this film as part of a David Lean double-header with "The Bridge on the River Kwai". You'd think you could hardly find two less similar films, but I was surprised exactly how much they had in common. I saw each of them as a kind lovesong to a mythologized past. "Kwai" romanticizes the war, the soldiers, the prison, the bridge, whereas the reality was far more brutal. "Brief Encounter" romanticizes pre-war Britain.
The performances in the film are case studies in understatement. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard do little to overtly establish the emotional turmoil their characters are experiencing, yet the message comes across very well indeed. Compare to "Casablanca", for instance. With no disrespect to that magnificent film, "Brief Encounter" manages to convey the same level of emotional intensity without resorting to the sort of grand dramatic scenes that Hollywood specialized in at this time.
"Brief Encounter" is a thoroughly English film. I love all things English, so I have complaint about that. But it is unusual to American audiences, which makes it a barrier especially to modern viewers. Some people call the film dated, and this is partly what they mean. I don't think it is dated at all, not really. The attitude of the characters toward their relationship is unusual. It's been very much en vogue for a long time now to treat adultery very casually in films. This film treats it very seriously. But there's nothing dated about that. It's not as though adultery used to be a moral issue and isn't now. It's that we're unaccustomed to seeing a film portray it so sensitively.
I've noticed a lot of people really digging into this film and throwing up all sorts of interesting conjectures. From the sexual orientation of Alec's friend to Alec's real agenda in all this, it's fascinating to speculate about what else might be going on. But I think it's important to remember that this story is told from Laura's point of view. This is deliberate, and it's important. The film is not so much about Alec and Laura as it is about Laura. If Alec is a womanizer, a psychotic, or a con man, it makes no difference to the film, because Laura believes him, and she believes that he loves her. This film is about how she responds to this sudden and unexpected tumult in her life.
I've heard others refer to Laura's husband as the villain of the piece. In a sense, I suppose he is. In a sense, he stands in conflict to the heroine's desire. But not really. The really troubling thing about Laura's "affair" (be it consumated or not... it doesn't matter in the least) is how utterly irrelevant her husband is. Her pangs of guilt seem to have less to do with her family than they do with simply obeying a pre-existing moral code. Adultery isn't wrong because of the pain it inflicts loved ones, it's wrong because society says it is. Laura is intellectually aware that thoughts of her family should make her feel guilty, and sometimes they do, but other times they don't. Her family is, in the grand scheme of things, only a very minor complication. The main complication, the real barrier to Laura's happiness, is society's mores. That's the villain.
But even that is too simple. That's the beauty of this picture. The idea isn't that society's rules are wrong, or repressive. It's that society's rules are simple, while life can get very complicated. It's about the conflict between those simple rules and this simple love, and the complicated web of guilt, self-loathing, confusion, and despair they create. What's the answer? Free love? Open marriages? No, that would create other problems, obviously.
But then, this film isn't about finding answers.
One last comment: for such a great director, I noticed that the directing was nothing very special in this film. I mean, the cinematography was gorgeous, but it was shot in a very simple, straightforward, unimpressively effective manner. Until the end, when Laura runs out on to the platform, after Alec leaves. That sequences... the angled shot of her face, the sense of claustrophobia, despair, and blind panic. It's an incredible moment.
Another Woman (1988)
This film blew me away
I just watched this last night, and I've been thinking about it all day. What an amazing film! So poignant, so subtle. A woman re-evaluates her life and begins to lament the choices she made years ago. Such a simple premise, such immense possibilities.
This film demands a lot of its audience. There is no humor, no action, and very little plot. Most people won't be into this at all, I imagine, which is a shame. This film offers a really wonderful perspective on a subject that is so very rarely addressed in films today: aging. This film is about a woman taking stock of her life at the age of fifty. She looks back, she sees the choices she made and how they turned out. She sees the compromises she made to get where she is today (very successful, head of a philosophy department, about to write another book), and she begins to appreciate, for the first time, what those compromises cost.
This is, in my opinion, the central tragedy of human existence. You only get one shot at life, and no one ever tells you how to manage it. So, you make mistakes, and one day, when you're fifty, you've finally learned enough to start making the right choices. But, by that time, is it too late? This film doesn't answer that question, at least not for its central character. But it does offer hope.
The film is propelled by several dynamite performances. But, even in such a crowded field of great performances, it is not difficult to pick out Gena Rowlands, who gives an unforgettably nuanced performance as Marion, the film's central character.
You may notice that this film is propelled by a number of coincidences. Every chance encounter, however, has an eerie relevance to Marion's soul-searching. It may look contrived, but it isn't. These aren't coincidences at all. The pregnant woman, played by Mia Farrow, is instrumental in setting up each of these 'coincidences', and that character's name is Hope. I was half-expecting a "Fight Club" revelation at the end, but it never came, which is good. This film could stand both ways, and it's better for the director to leave the audience to consider the relationship between Hope and Marion on their own. Like I said, I've been thinking about it all day.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
One of the best ever
I'm pleased to add my name to the chorus of praise this film has garnered here. It is truly one of the best films of all time, and I never tire of seeing it.
I'm actually a little surprised, though. I was expecting to see far more negative comments about this film. Of the comments I read, the only negative ones were from due to historical inaccuracies. I've said before, the historical accuracy of an historical film has no bearing whatsoever on my judgment of the film, but I understand where these people are coming from.
But anyway, I kinda thought there would be a minority of people chiming in claiming the film to be boring. Don't get me wrong, I personally find it riveting. But, as I watched it the other day, it occurred to me that a lot of modern viewers might indeed find it boring, especially if they've been told things like "It's the best war film ever!" and are walking into it with visions of "Saving Private Ryan" in their head.
Because, regardless of what the people here say, this is NOT a war film. It takes place during a war, and includes characters who are fighting a war, yes. But that's all. War is a setting for the dramatic conflicts of the film (and there are many). But the conflict of the war is not one of the conflicts of this film.
We've got Saito vs. Nicholson, Shears vs. Nicholson, Clipton vs. Nicholson, Shears vs. Warden, Warden vs. Nicholson. These are the conflicts. Conflicts between men, not armies or nations. Sure, the war is an everpresent element in the background of this film, but that's all it is. The fate of the bridge is not the meat of this movie. The important thing here is the conflicts between the characters. Nicholson's dignity vs. Saito's authority. Shears's pragmatism vs. Nicholson's duty, or Warden's grim heroism. And each of them, in their own way, vs. Clipton's simple human compassion. That's what the film is about. The bridge provides a focal point. It is a motivating factor to all of the characters, in one way or another (except Clipton). It is a metaphor, a visible, tangible representation for the various struggles at work between the main characters.
The film's only major weakness is in the performance of William Holden, which is simply not up to the standard of the others. I honestly am not familiar with his work (this is the only film of his I have seen), but in this movie he is poor. He sticks out like a sore thumb... the Hollywood star amid a company of actors. Unfortunately, much of the film rests on his shoulders, especially in the second half, and he just can't carry it. In a lesser movie, you'd never notice, but in one as excellent as this, it's a crippling weakness. And it's such a shame.
Nevermind. This is still an excellent movie, a timeless classic that deserves to live forever. 9.5/10
Great, but over-rated
This is not, repeat not, the greatest film of all time. I'm sorry, it just isn't. My advice, to everyone who maintains that it is, is to immediately go out and see "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Spartacus", two other historical war epics which each have far more depth than "Braveheart". If you still say "Braveheart" is better, then we can disagree amicably, but I can't take seriously anyone who trumpets "Braveheart" without having seen its ancestors.
What bothers me about this film is its simplicity. But I mentioned in another comment that simplicity and power go hand in hand, and this is definitely a powerful movie. But for me, its that same simplicity that prevents "Braveheart" from being elevated to the level of a true cinematic classic.
The villain in "Braveheart", Edward the Longshanks, is a one-note villain. He is an interesting character (villains usually are), but he is simply evil. There are no shades of grey there. Compare to the villain of "Spartacus", Crassus, portrayed by Laurence Olivier. Here is an infinitely more complex character. Crassus is a character for whom the audience can feel a degree of sympathy, even when siding against him. It's impossible to feel sympathy for Longshanks. The man is not human.
But then again, it's the simplicity that makes the film powerful. The audience feels a deep and stomach-churning hatred for Longshanks, which is important. That hatred is an important motivating factor.
Now look at the hero. William Wallace is uncompromisingly good. No matter how vicious he is in battle, how brutal in war, we know that his motivations are utterly noble. There is a level of historical inaccuracy here, I'm sure. His principle that the nobles exist to provide the people with freedom is, I think, a highly anachronistic political principle. But nevermind. I hate people who quibble about historical accuracy in films. It's a movie, not a history lesson.
Anyway, compare to the hero in "Lawrence of Arabia". He is in a similar position, and has similar goals. But that turns a very critical eye toward all the violence involved in achieving freedom, and a very critical eye toward Lawrence himself. Again, "Braveheart" lacks this depth.
Lack of depth is not such a terrible criticism of a film, not when the story, shallow as it may be, is so strong. And not when the performances are so strong, and the direction is so strong. But when people are talking about the greatest film of the 20th century, as many people here are claiming this to be, I think there needs to be a higher standard at work than that. The bottom line is that "Braveheart" is an excellent and highly entertaining film. Despite its length, it is riveting from beginning to end (except that denouement, which is a little drawn out there at the end). It is an emotional monster, getting right into your guts and kicking the wind out of you again and again. The supporting cast is wonderfully. The political intrigue going on is fascinating. But, this is not the best ever. For me, it would probably fall somewhere in the lower half of my personal top 100 list, if I ever bothered to compile one. I give it 7.5/10.
The first truly great film from Terry Gilliam. In some ways, he's never matched it.
This is definitely not a film for everyone. It is demanding. It is highly unusual. It doesn't really fit comfortably into any particular genre, for one thing. I mean, yes, it's definitely comedy insofar as it is funny. But it isn't really sf and it isn't really fantasy. The world that Gilliam has created is both incredibly imaginative and utterly mundane. This creates a real tension for viewers, I think, because it's hard to know what to make of it when you see these small, bureaucratic, mundane characters existing in this mad, fantastical world. Imagine a scene in Star Wars where Luke and Han are chased by Stormtroopers through the Death Star's payroll department. It's a combination of characters, styles, and settings that is utterly unfamiliar.
Unfortunately for the director, many of the films great themes are totally buried by the unrelenting visual tour de force happening in every scene. This film requires watching again and again and again to really appreciate. Some people would argue (and not without a valid point) that this indicates a bad film; confused, muddled, unfocused. I don't happen to think so. I think it indicates a film overflowing with ideas from all directions. Every aspect of the production, not just the script, the direction, the performances, but the set design, the production design, the costumes, is teeming with wild, unchecked creativity. This makes it, especially toward the end, particularly difficult for the first time viewer to keep up.
There is so much to find in this film that is worth exploring. But you have to look really hard sometimes. This film was made fairly early in Gilliam's career as a director, and I think there are flaws which, perhaps, he would avoid now. It is funny, yes. It is well made, yes. But I think it's a little too impenetrable. I have no problem with films that demand more from their audiences, but I think this one goes a little too far.
Still, terrific performances from Pryce, Palin, and De Niro. Wonderful script, brilliant direction, gorgeous production design.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Don't overlook the story
You've heard the express "can't see the forest for the trees", right? It refers to someone who gets so caught up in details, they miss the big picture. Reading other comments on IMDb regarding "Born on the Fourth of July", I think people have the opposite problem with this film. So many people seem to get caught up in talking about Vietnam, war, Nixon, America, Communism, and hippies, that they totally overlook Ron Kovic.
Ron Kovic is the center of this film. In "Platoon", war was the center, and the central character (Charlie Sheen's Chris Taylor) was merely a POV character through whose eyes we could see war. Not so in "Born on the Fourth of July". Vietnam is the setting, the context, and the backdrop. But Ron Kovic is the story.
Oliver Stone really understands a character arc. Look at Kovic's life, where it starts, where it ends. The film is the journey, how he got from A to B. It is a dramatization of a life, as opposed to an actual life, but it still rings true. It feels true. It reaches an artistic level of truth, even if some literal truths are overlooked, distorted, or rearranged. That's what Stone is trying to do. People who quibble about the facts miss the point. (This is a theme I will take up again when I review some of Stone's other films, as Stone is constantly being bashed for historical inaccuracies.) The connections from one point to the next work admirably, and the progression is completely believable, which is quite a feat for such a dramatic change of attitude (compare to "American History X", where the main character goes through a similar about face with scant motivation).
Anyway, what impresses me about this film is the honesty and respect with which Stone presents the opposing views of the film. Say what you want about Stone's political beliefs, but the argument in this film is presented in a very neutral light. It's a story about Kovic's choices, Kovic's politics, Kovic's judgments. And the anti-Vietnam beliefs he finally supports in the final act are a very natural and believable outcome of the story. This film isn't anywhere near as didactic as some people like to imagine.
The tragedy of Oliver Stone is that, because he has been so edgy, so controversial, so deliberately provocative, no one can really just sit down and, with a neutral eye, watch his films. They have become so burdened by this giant, irrelevant, political squabble. The films have been subsumed by the very issues they sought to raise. And it's a shame, with this film especially, because it is excellent.
Tom Cruise gives possibly the greatest performance of his career (I can't think of anything that tops it, though his performance in "Eyes Wide Shut", for very different reasons, is just as remarkable). The script is fantastic, taking time where it needs to take time, but not overly deliberate in its approach. It's very economical with time. It knows what each scene needs to say, and says it without any excess baggage, wasted space, or dead time. The direction is excellent, as is the editing and cinematography. The supporting cast is excellent.
But this movie would be nothing without the remarkable, heart-rending, true story of Ron Kovic. So, while we admire the technical achievement of the film, while we debate the points raised, while we enshrine or excoriate the director (as the case may be), let's not forget the story. Let's not get so fired up about Vietnam that we forget Ron Kovic. He is the heart and soul of this film.
One final note: I bristle when people call this an anti-war film. That really diminishes it, I think. It's so much more than that. It's not just saying that war is brutal, nasty, and horrific. It's saying something far more specific about a specific war, and about the effect of that war on a specific man.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
This is a really funny movie. It's got some gags that don't work, sure, but on the whole, it's a big hit. It isn't, however, the greatest comedy of all time, or even close to that.
It does have some great comic performances, mainly from Madeleine Kahn and Gene Wilder.
But the ending, sadly, is a disaster. I realize what Brooks was going for, but.. well, I just lose interest every time. There are still some funny gags there at the end, but... Let me put it this way, even in a very broad parody like this, the story remains important. Not nearly as important as it would be in a real (i.e., "straight") Western, but not utterly disposable either. The story is a loose (very loose) framework of characters, motivations, and events, within which the comedy can occur. In a comedy of this type, there is a lot of room to stretch the story (anachronisms, for instance). But it can't be stretched forever. The ending goes too far, and falls flat as a result.
But, watch it at least that far, anyway, and then turn it off. I do the same thing with "Monty Python and the Holy Grail".