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Stunningly, startlingly brilliant.
21 May 2013
The Star Trek franchise has been mined for decades practically to depletion. And while little would be gained from endlessly resuscitating the canon version, it seemed nevertheless a courageous, almost dangerous act to so completely reboot a body of work that has worked through ten movies and six series and wipe the slate clean as Abrams did with this film's predecessor. For a true Star Trek fan, it was a hard pill to swallow at first, but only at first.

J.J. Abrams' courage gave us almost everything we love most about Star Trek, with the inevitable exception of those things we could not have – the original cast. The characters remain in place, gamely reimagined at the beginning of their careers, rather than, as we eventually came to know them, at the end. Of course, it would have been easy to expect a new and improved telling of the canon, complete with new and improved visual effects. Instead, we got a stunning opportunity to see our beloved comrades explore new adventures without the necessity, or tedium, of a simple retelling.

In this sequel, however, Abrams constructs delicately, almost lovingly, a story where familiar elements are unavoidable, but one where they are weaved into a thoroughly satisfying and viscerally thrilling path to endless years of new delight for Trekkers everywhere.

The cast are learning to occupy their roles, with one notable exception. Zachary Quinto is positively delightful as Spock, a role he clearly shows the ability to wear comfortably and expand in surprising new directions. Simon Pegg is Scotty on Steroids – funnier, crankier, and vastly more entertaining. Perhaps most impressive is Karl Urban as McCoy. He is spot on perfect, almost disturbingly so, portraying McCoy just was we would have expected, while at the same time compensating for some of the thespian shortcomings of DeForest Kelly.

The glaring disappointment is Chris Pine as Kirk. Pine lacks even a hint of the powerful machismo of William Shatner, depending instead on simple unwarranted bravado. He comes across less as a hero and more of a simple jerk, and his wanton womanizing is less romantic than simply debauched. It is perhaps ironic that Shatner, long lambasted for his acting, ends up being the most difficult actor to replace convincingly.

To be fair, a fully satisfying replacement was probably not possible, as Shatner, for all his limitations, has, after decades of accretion, evolved into a once in a lifetime commodity. Still, it is difficult not to see Pine as miscast. But then, who? Channing Tatum? Chris Hemsworth? Most likely unavailable, so we have Pine.

The story is pure gold, pure Star Trek. It draws upon familiar themes and characters and casts them in brilliant directions. At times, this film seems almost a tribute to the legacy Abrams seemed to be totally rejecting in the prequel. Stunningly, startlingly brilliant and persuasive evidence that Abrams is the only man with whom fans can entrust, not only our beloved Star Trek, but, it turns out, the other crown jewel of Sci-Fi fandom – Star Wars, the new episode of which Abrams will also direct.

I wondered during the movie whether those less familiar with the Star Trek canon would appreciate the many subtle inside jokes and references. To be sure, there were many that were not so subtle, but it seems obvious that people who are relatively uninitiated with get less out of the movie than hard core fans.

I'm not even going to discuss the plot details. Suffice it to say that nobody should leave the theatre disappointed, no matter what they were expecting. As for me, I left feeling as though all my years of devotion to Star Trek were fully rewarded, and renewed by this, one of the most magnificent achievements in the series' nearly half a century of delighting fans of all ages.
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Seductively entertaining and visually magnificent.
11 May 2013
Watching this film requires a few concessions.

First, you must imagine the elegantly beautiful 1974 classic version does not exist. Trust me. It's painful otherwise, and I will avoid any reference or comparison for that reason. Second, you must also imagine that, notwithstanding Fitzgerald's masterpiece, the setting is not the Roaring Twenties but, rather, some over amped time warp netherworld where Jay-Z and Beyonce' get to be avant garde again because they're rather incongruously and anachronistically foisted on a film in which they really have no place.

If you make it that far, you're almost ready to watch The Great Gatsby 2013. Now brace yourself for Baz Lurhrmann's jarring postmodern deconstructivism that was thrilling a decade ago in Moulin Rouge, but has become by now almost as grotesque as Julie Taymor's murderous affront to Beatle music – Across the Universe.

Thus prepared, you can now enjoy what is undeniably an entertaining, if uninspiring, film.

Tobey Maquire, of whom I am usually a fan, is somewhat flaccid as Nick Carroway, despite the fact that the story depends utterly upon him to drive it forward. He does, however, bring a decidedly literary dimension to the film by framing the main story within his own attempt at recovery. Joel Edgerton is a perfectly delightful Tom Buchanan. He embodies all the machismo brutishness with which Fitzgerald envisioned the character. He also has enough personal charisma to help anchor the otherwise riotous staging. And, of course, there is DiCaprio as Gatsby. I didn't hate him, although I was predisposed to, but I wanted to love this movie, and Leo was one of the main reasons I couldn't.

As far as casting, however, the jewel of this film is the deliriously sensuous and beautiful Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. She makes it easy to believe that Daisy broke hearts with just a smile back in Louisville and inspired Gatsby to bring the world to her dock for her sake.

This film mines Fitzgerald's novel for more complex themes than predecessors have explored. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Ironically, it also strips all the novel's major themes of any subtlety whatsoever and reduces them to stage settings for an unrelenting onslaught of elaborate music videos.

But if I reel in my disappointment for a moment, I can only conclude that this is a well-made movie that is seductively entertaining and visually magnificent. Maybe it isn't fair to expect more.
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For Pete's sake, Chris - enough already.
24 July 2012
All right. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Christopher Nolan is a great director. Few people can put a story on the screen like Nolan does. But the problem is that he's a terrible writer. How many more times does he have to absolutely assassinate a perfectly good story idea or character franchise with his amateurish, ham-handed writing before he and everyone else realizes this?

First, he always sets clocks in motion. Really? Is that all you've got? A real writer can create a sense of urgency based on time constraints without introducing an actual clock, especially one that is strapped onto a device that seems to have no other need of a clock than to display its imminent intent to blow everything to kingdom come.

Then of course, there's character development, or the lack of it. Batman is conflicted as to whether he should be Batman or not. Bane is conflicted by, oh, let's say puppy love. Catwoman is conflicted by whether or not she really wants to be bad. I mean, I know this whole franchise is based on a comic book, but with a price tag of a quarter of a billion dollars to make, does it have to play like one? Come on, Chris. Hire a writer.

Basically, this is a movie that consists of lots of scenes of people either fighting, or walking aggressively toward a fight, with the central characters standing still like a Greek chorus of narrators long enough to tell the story, rather than participate in it, by presenting long, boring diatribes and monologues like a bunch of kids breathlessly setting forth a cowboys and Indians scenario before they run around whooping and shooting, only to repeat, in this case for three tedious, exasperating hours.

I love superhero movies when they are able, like all good science fiction, to transcend their admittedly contrived premises by presenting witty and profound issues in clever and unique ways without hammering you over the head or numbing your brain with endless sequences of violence and destruction. Once again, Chris, you have failed in the former by wallowing in the latter.
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Cheap and tawdry and really unnecessary.
28 August 2011
There seems to be as little reason to review this movie as there was to make it, but it was made, so I'll review it.

It sucks.

Well, that's not much of a review, although it's more than the movie deserves, since it isn't much of a movie, but I'll elaborate.

I love Guy Pearce in supporting roles, but the thinness of his talent becomes all too evident the more we see of him. Add to that a character that isn't even remotely likable, and you've had enough of him before the first act closes. Likewise for Katie Holmes, who as an actress has little to offer other than being beautiful.

In fact, the only character in the movie that is even remotely interesting is the house and its impending Architectural Digest debut. Being a fan of the magazine, I kept waiting for something that would warrant a cover, but even that never came through.

All you end up with is these creepy little goblins, tooth faeries, perhaps, as it seems they feed on children's' teeth (is that even possible given their lack of any nutritional content?) And they fancy the teeth of Sally (Bailee Madison), poor little abandoned Sally whose mother and father just don't love her enough (cue violins).

The tooth faeries hiss and sigh in an endless sibilant whispering that only little Sally can hear. In short order, she succumbs to the siren song and the beasties set upon her. The rest is all sound and fury signifying nothing except a few "boo scares" now and then, cheap and tawdry and really unnecessary, just like the movie.

This movie is a remake of a cult classic made for television in the 1970's, twisted somewhat around a younger protagonist. Absolutely nothing about it works, and it doesn't improve on the original in any way. I really expected more.
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Dazzlingly successful in portraying the cutthroat fashion empire.
23 June 2011
It may be unfair to say this, but this would have been a much less entertaining movie without the marvelous Meryl Streep. Actually, one could say that of any movie she is in, as she so completely overwhelms most of what Hollywood has to throw at her. The same is true here, with the exception of Stanley Tucci, whose counterpoint to Streep is so effective it was repeated almost immediately in Julie and Julia.

It's no secret that Streep's character is based on Anna Wintour, the tyrannical editor of Vogue, but Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly really reminds me very little of Wintour, a credit to Streep's ability to create effective characters even within the persona of someone as well-known and contemporary as Wintour.

The cast of the film is tremendously uneven. Streep and Tucci are the stalwart cornerstones, without whose truly inspired performances the film would disintegrate tragically into banality. Anne Hathaway, good as usual though still a lightweight compared to Streep and Tucci, is the nominal star of the film, but she is more often than not a foil for the dynamic duo. Emily Blunt, as a devoted fashionista, nevertheless looks a bit odd from time to time, including her first appearance in the film criticizing Hathaway's conservative attire while she herself sports a sort of post-apocalyptic Goth Judy Jetson garb. She seems strangely underutilized and stretched a bit thin at the same time here, but she is delightful nonetheless.

Then there are the boyfriends. Adrian Grenier is definitely fighting above his weight class, and it doesn't work. He does a creditable job of moving dialog along with Hathaway, but he has to work too hard to appear interesting, and fails miserably. As for Simon Baker's Christian Thompson, aside from the fact that he's a bit self-obsessed, there seems to be no reason why Andy would not choose him, handsome, suave, successful, well-connected, over the scruffy, dreary and ultimately insecure character presented by Grenier.

Despite all its shortcomings, however, the film is dazzlingly successful in portraying the cutthroat fashion empire presided over by the ruthless, Cruella DeVil-ish editor of "Runway" magazine. Some people put on music for background noise. I put on a movie. This movie has been my background noise dozens of times, and I still love having it on. I savor every word, every gesture from the truly magical Meryl Streep as, in my opinion, the greatest Bitch of all time.

The soundtrack is wonderful, and one can enjoy this movie simply by listening to it. There are plenty of delicious surprises too, like the minor appearance of Gisele Bündchen, who just happens to be the richest (her net worth exceeds the rest of the cast combined, even if you throw in Anna Wintour) and most successful supermodel of all time, as Serena, a work-friend of Emily Blunt's character.

In the end, I'm not sure why, but I absolutely love this movie. I can watch it twice in a row and have done more than once. You may not become that attached to The Devil Wears Prada, but it should definitely be worth the investment of at least one serious watch.
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Love Actually (2003)
I love "Love Actually."
17 June 2011
"Love Actually" is a film of exquisitely delicate emotions blended with just the right touches of humor to keep it from becoming maudlin. Everyone in the film appears to be an emotional train wreck waiting to happen. They dangle precariously at the end of their respective ropes over chasms of heartache. But what is so rewardingly beautiful is that each survives through different kinds of strength, inspiring viewers to find within their own strength in facing similar disasters.

The incidental entwining with the Christmas season lends the many disparate stories a sort of framework that supports their almost imperceptible weight. Writer/Director Richard Curtis, true to form, constructs a brilliant and complex work that in the hands of lesser directors might have come off as diffused and ineffective, but in his hands comes together with astonishing elegance and power.

Craig Armstrong's score is so beautifully subtle and yet powerful that it weaves with the delicacy of silk and the strength of steel throughout the film, masterfully setting its tone and unifying the diverse subplots into a seamless whole. The additional music is cunningly selected to provide counterpoint to Armstrong's score while at the same time complementing it perfectly.

The cast is beyond compare, superb to the last detail. I can't even imagine where to begin singling anyone out, so I won't try. Suffice it to say that, in typical British style, the entire ensemble shines as a whole without any one cast member overshadowing another, no mean feat when the credits read like a Who's Who of what I would call "serious cinema." There are so many moments to treasure that, once again, I will not even attempt to single any out. You simply must experience them for yourself, which I recommend without reservation. This is yet another of those incidentally Christmas-themed movies that I watch without fail every holiday season. I could continue spewing superlatives, but I think you get the idea. I love "Love Actually."
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Utterly delightful, astonishingly well-acted, and beautifully directed.
15 June 2011
Beautifully adapted from a French play La Cuisine de Anges, fresh off its brilliant success on Broadway, We're No Angels is one of my favorite "overlooked" films of all time. Villainously remade in 1989, the original "We're no Angels" is a lyrically beautiful tale of the most unlikely sort.

Three escaped convicts on Devil's Island plan to rob and murder an innocent family until they become absorbed in their comically desperate lives. Maintaining a light comedy throughout, without once devolving into farce, "We're no Angels" is wickedly charming and deviously funny, owing in no small part to the epic talent of its all-star cast.

"We're no Angels" stars Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov, and Humphrey Bogart, all marvelous and at the peak of their prowess, and is directed by Michael Curtiz, whose most notable efforts include not only Academy Award winning "Mildred Pierce", Joan Crawford's triumphant comeback film, but also another Humphrey Bogart masterpiece, "Casablanca." There is a heartwarming Christmas theme throughout the film, but it never gets overly saccharine. To the contrary, the convicts remain unrepentant and incorrigible to the end, despite their dubious good deeds. In a nutshell, the Ducatel family runs a shop for their absent relative, who shows up unexpectedly to audit the books and, most likely, discharge the hapless shopkeeper family. But things begin to go seriously awry, thanks to a reptilian interloper, Adolph, with a ruthless ability to do what is unthinkable to the rest of the cast. Adolph is never seen, nor is any violence or menace, and the film ends up being perfect for family viewing, despite its dark themes. In fact, I include the charming gem in my Christmas traditions, and I highly recommend it for yours.

The supporting cast is almost too good to be true. Leo G. Carroll is the shopkeeper, delightfully muddled and well intentioned. Joan Bennett, whom most will remember as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on television's "Dark Shadows", is his slightly put-upon wife. Basil Rathbone plays the evil cousin from France with villainous aplomb.

Why this film is not better known escapes me. It is utterly delightful, astonishingly well-acted, and beautifully directed. It leaves me with a warm feeling worth its weight in gold, and certainly worth a watch if you've never seen it.
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War and Peace (1956)
A perfectly ridiculous farce.
22 April 2011
Any allusion to Tolstoy's masterpiece in connection with this film can only be considered libel. The film fails on virtually every level and bears no thematic, emotional, intellectual or philosophical relationship to that great novel. With so many flaws, all that remains is a perfectly ridiculous farce. But it is pretty.

One can gain a cursory introduction to Tolstoy's novel from this film, but little else. Tolstoy envisioned a colossal and sweeping epic of cultural upheaval amidst an intricate tapestry of human drama set against the French invasion of Russia by Napoleon. King Vidor seems to have in mind something a little more akin to a saccharin, tawdry melodrama with great costumes.

The casting decisions are completely incomprehensible. Although I adore Audrey Hepburn and, when properly cast, she was beyond compare, as the complex and conflicted Natasha Rostova her strengths become weaknesses. As the sprightly ingénue, or the naïve gamin, she set the screen on fire. Moreover, as she was, in fact, an aristocrat, her regal bearing is sublime.

There are, however, qualities in the great characters of Russian literature that were simply not within Hepburn's repertoire. Her memorable turn as Holly Golightly may have transformed Capote's layered character into a shallow, though thoroughly delightful, scatterbrain, but her incomparable radiance made it all worthwhile. Sadly, a similarly simplified Natasha did not play as well.

Hepburn's then husband, Mel Ferrer, was equally miscast as the vain and sardonic Prince Andrei. To be fair, he would have been miscast in any serious role, as he was a positively dreadful actor, but like most of the cast, he fails to reflect any of the impact that war can have on people's lives or the epic cultural shifts that were taking place in Russia at the time.

Neither of these sins can hold a candle, however, to the casting of Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezukhov. First, he was, by his own acknowledgment, far too long in the tooth for the role, which he says he merely took for the money. More to the point, his bumpkin blank stares and cloying American earnestness, and a ubiquitous curiously pained expression that defies explanation, his stock in trade in more successful efforts, smother any subtlety that the role requires. Wandering through epic battles like a cow grazing mindlessly in a football field, he could not be more ridiculous. Granted Pierre's application of gematria to determine that Napoleon was the Biblical Antichrist may have been a bit much to put on the big screen in 1956, but are we truly to accept Fonda's placid counting to one thousand to keep his feet from freezing as a reasonable substitute? I suppose that had the film been called "Pretty French and Russian Uniforms" it would have been less objectionable and certainly more honest, but then who would have watched it? As "War and Peace" it is more epic failure than truly epic.

In one scene Fonda as Pierre stands inexplicably on a great battlefield and mutters, "Damn you Napoleon. Damn you to hell." He should have directed this curse at King Vidor, the true villain of the piece, for squandering the legitimate talents of Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and, one must not forget, Leo Tolstoy on this travesty. Damn you King Vidor. Damn you to hell.
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The Black Stallion is a lyrical, rhapsodic experience of breathtaking beauty.
7 April 2011
Adapted from Walter Farley's beloved novel, and exquisitely filmed by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, The Black Stallion is a lyrical, rhapsodic experience of breathtaking beauty.

The cast of The Black Stallion is superb and their portrayals are often astonishingly magical. The standout in the film is young Kelly Reno. Preternaturally, disturbingly adult, yet intensely vulnerable, his electric presence illuminates the screen. Tragically, his protracted recovery from an accident involving an 18-wheeler cut his career short, but as Alec, he is the stuff of cinema legend.

Young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno), at sea with his father (Hoyt Axton) is fascinated by a wild black stallion aboard the steam ship Drake. The purported owner calls the horse Shetan (Devil), and keeps him heavily restrained. After a storm at sea and a subsequent fire aboard ship, which claims the life of his father, Alec is shipwrecked on an island of the coast of North Africa with the mysterious black Arabian stallion.

The scene on the island is one of my favorite in all of cinematic history. As Alec forages to find food on the uninhabited island, he sees the stallion caught in some rocks by the ropes still attached to it. He frees the horse, but it runs away. Alec then decides to try to mount the horse, and after several attempts, which play out like a hypnotic pas de deux of almost astounding beauty, he succeeds. The two of them are as one as the magnificent horse gallops along the shore, and their bond is complete. This scene, without so much as a word of dialog, is one of my favorite in all of cinema. Its astonishing beauty alone should have assured Deschanel at least an Oscar® nomination, but, alas, he was snubbed.

After some time, Alec and the horse are rescued by some Portuguese fishermen, and Alec returns home with the horse, which he keeps in his yard, with some difficulty. Upon one of the horse's escapes, he and Alec meet retired horse trainer Henry Daily, portrayed with delightful understatement by a masterful Mickey Rooney. At length, they determine to race the horse against thoroughbred champions.

Alec's mother (Teri Garr) objects, but, as we all know, the race must go on. This is good, because we get to see Alec and The Black run as one once again.

Carmine Coppola's haunting score plays perfectly with Deschanel's cinematography. The result is sublime. The Black Stallion does justice to the 1941 children's novel, and the masterful production offers something for audiences of all ages.
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Revolution OS (2001)
A poorly made propaganda film, but definitely entertaining.
17 January 2011
An interesting "documentary." If only it were true.

This movie might just as well have been titled "Revenge of the Nerds: Nerds Destroy Microsoft." Don't worry about the intellectual property issue that someone else owns the rights to the names "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Microsoft." Intellectual property obviously isn't very important to people who champion an operating system built by systematically reverse engineering and copying, piece by piece, someone else's operating system.

Except the nerds didn't destroy Microsoft. In the second decade of the 21st century, Microsoft still has a 90% market share and MacOS is its only real competitor. Admittedly, Linux never expressed an interest in market domination, but this movie's tales of Linux's triumph over Windows are greatly overstated.

Two of the great success stories presented in the movie; Cygnus and VA Linux, simply no longer exist as presented. Cygnus was absorbed by Red Hat even before the movie was released, and VA Linux abandoned its business model, becoming an entirely new company with a new value proposition shortly thereafter, when a disastrous crash in its stock price proved its original value proposition was indeed weak as it had originally been described.

The movie presents absolutely no data from "the other side" other than a letter written by Bill Gates in 1976, when he was twenty and Microsoft had not even been incorporated. Moreover, the letter is read by a woman whose voice borders on a rage-induced hysteria accompanied by a disturbing and ominous soundtrack. I wonder how rational Torvalds would sound with a lurid Berlioz soundtrack accompanying a lunatic's recitation.

What is most disturbing/amusing/annoying is the constant insistence by commentators on comparing Linux with Windows NT. Let's see, Microsoft hasn't released a product under that name for more than a decade, so perhaps, if we are to insist on that comparison, we should be examining Windows NT, released in 1993, with Linux 1.0, released in the same year. Now that would be interesting.

In the end, this movie has the tone and sentiment of a poorly made propaganda film, and about as much intellectual honesty. Linus Torvalds actually seems slightly bitter at the success other people have achieved through Linux, and he remains unrepentantly in denial of Linux's origins in the GNU project. Many of the other commentators seemed to focus far too much on establishing their geek cred by claiming to have been doing "X" longer than anyone or having done "Y" first. Eventually, their endless ranting exalting themselves and their ideas became simply tiresome and made them appear more ridiculous than authoritative.

The one person who didn't come across as an embittered deludinoid is Richard Stallman himself. Stallman, despite a widely held public perception to the contrary, seems a rational and sincere advocate for his own ideals, however naïve they may be. It is perhaps ever so slightly disingenuous for Stallman to advocate working for nothing and giving your work away when he has been the recipient of numerous grants, including the MacArthur Grant – the sizable so-called "genius" grant from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Nevertheless, this movie made Stallman seem, to me, quite genuine and even likable.

I would call this movie a dramatization, not a documentary. It is definitely entertaining; a delightfully comic, though unintentionally so, look inside the bizarre open source community and their zealous, almost religious devotion to an operating system that, notwithstanding all the declarations of victory to the contrary, has never managed a significant market penetration and, in its prevalent forms, in all likelihood, never will.
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Paris: The Luminous Years (2010 TV Movie)
Apply as needed.
6 January 2011
There are two ways to examine history. One is to delve deeply into minute details artificially isolated from context. Another is to examine many topics at once as they create, delicately, intricately, beautifully, a context that gives them all meaning. This documentary, fortunately, gloriously, is the latter.

Did you know that Picasso did set design for the Ballets Russes, or that his closest friends were poets, not painters? Did you know that James Joyce's Ulysses might never have been published if not for an avant-garde bookstore owner named Sylvia Beach? Have you ever considered how the acerbic comments of Gertrude Stein shaped the sensibilities of a generation of canonical writers like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, most of them American expatriates, or that Aaron Copeland had to go to Paris to develop the vocabulary that would eventually define his uniquely American sound.or how an insanely gifted cadre of artists, poets, musicians, dancers, and impresarios redefined art, all forms of art, as we now know it? These are only a few of the threads woven beautifully, frankly, intelligently together by this startlingly enlightening work.

It is almost impossible to give full consideration to the diversity of this documentary on a single viewing. Each viewing provides new insights, synchronicities and points of departure for further research. Anyone wishing to develop a full appreciation and understanding of the art, by which, again, is meant all forms of art, of the twentieth century should consider this required reading.

As one commentator of the film observed, we absorb places into our lives, into our identities. We dream about places. They become part of our unconscious. Paris was, in the period addressed by this documentary the place an artist, any kind of artist, had to be to drink in the intoxicating intellectual, creative and spiritual libation that was served in no other place on Earth. Years later, in the latter part of the twentieth century, New York would become a similar place for nurturing the art of the world, but here, in Paris, in lively and intimate vignettes, is the basis of everything art was to become and, to some extent, remains to this day.

I preordered the DVD of this documentary the moment I saw it. It arrived on a day when I was sick in bed, and I cannot say whether it was various medications or this movie that made me feel better that day. All I can say is this. Get it. Apply as needed. You will feel better.
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A Christmas Memory (1997 TV Movie)
A positively dreadful remake. PLEASE see the original.
30 December 2010
I'd like to at least call this version of Capote's classic "well-intentioned", but what could have possibly been the good intent in turning a memorable classic into a maudlin mess? Every single bit of magic from the original, and there was plenty, has been mercilessly crushed by this positively dreadful remake.

The 1960's version had everything, including an unforgettable performance by Geraldine Page as the dotty cousin. Patty Duke's portrayal is radically different and, in the end, less endearing. Instead of Donnie Melvin's innocent counterpoint as Buddy, we have Eric Lloyd's murderous on-again, off-again Southern accent that is so villainous it must be illegal. And, of course, the lyric narration by Mr. Capote himself is sadly missing. In all, far too many liberties were taken with Capote's original story by this disaster.

Despite the fact that it is common knowledge that the woman in Capote's short story was his cousin Sook Faulk, that name is never mentioned in the original story. It almost seems that this story's writers wanted to impress everyone with their discovery of the cousin's identity, but it's a heavy-handed touch that adds nothing. Similarly, the expansion of dialog and the recounting of events and interaction, not to mention characters, that were not in the original story is an affront to Capote's genius.

It saddens me to think that so many viewers believe this to be the original version of the movie, and are not aware of the astonishing masterpiece that preceded it by three decades.
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ABC Stage 67: A Christmas Memory (1966)
Season 1, Episode 14
Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.
24 December 2010
The immense beauty of this film derives in no small part, of course, from the brilliance of Capote's flawless writing. Capote wrote magnificent prose, not all of which translated well to the screen. This is a delightful exception, as it comes together into the quintessential adaptation of Capote and a holiday experience that is unlikely ever to be equaled.

The fragile narration by Mr. Capote himself floats like a dried leaf above this tender and intimate tale. The story itself is a lyric remembrance by Capote of the almost rhapsodic beauty of his holidays with his beloved Aunt Sook in the midst of his desolately poor Alabama childhood.

Perhaps the centerpiece of this treasure is the dazzling performance of Geraldine Page as Sook. She sets the tone and provides the driving force behind the story with a gentleness and innocence that infuse it with an undeniable genuineness.

The delicate affirmations the two friends share, the loss and longing, the foolish dreams that sustained them, and their moving holiday tradition; all are Capote at his best, long before he became his worst. The closing monologue is one of the most moving moments in cinema, not cheaply so, nor contrived, but earnest and real the way movies, and yes, the Holidays, should be.
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A long overdue tribute to the Liebermeister.
9 December 2010
For perhaps the first time, a full-fledged documentary focused exclusively and lovingly on Louis Sullivan, without the endless tiresome and unnecessary reference to his better-known pupil, has been mounted. Director, writer and producer Mark Richard Smith's understated and respectful treatment invites comparison to the great documentaries of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick; less thrilling in some ways, perhaps, than Burns and Novick's mature work, but equally beautiful.

The great architect Louis Sullivan is best known for iconic structures such as the Auditorium Building, the Carson, Pirie Scott store and the Charnley House in Chicago and the Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings in St. Louis, MO and Buffalo, NY, respectively. Many of his great works, however, including the startlingly beautiful Chicago Stock Exchange Building, were lost to misguided urban renewal in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sullivan is often referred to as the Father of the Skyscraper and the Prophet of Modern Architecture and coined the most famous phrase ever to come out of his profession, "form ever follows function". His exquisite ornamentation gave a sense of scale and intimacy to what would have otherwise been monstrously intimidating structures for the new urbanites of the late nineteenth century. He developed a vocabulary, uniquely American, democratic and organic, for buildings the essential nature of which is that they are tall, but tall in the beautiful way that only Louis could make them.

Smith "gets" Sullivan, and that is important. What is more important is that he has recruited the essential voices of Chicago architecture to tell the story of Louis Sullivan. Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago, and the man behind the extraordinary exhibit, Sullivan's Idea, at the Chicago Cultural Center, and Dr. Robert Twombly, Professor of Architectural History at City University of New York, provide spellbinding commentary. Dr. Joseph Siry, a leading American architectural historian and professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Wesleyan University, adds a magnificently cerebral perspective.

Smith's decision to use a female voice-over for Sullivan is a little confusing at first, but not objectionable. And I suppose one could grouse about Smith's discretion in avoiding some of the more controversial aspects of Sullivan's history. But, in the end, the film gels pleasingly around what ultimately matters most about Sullivan; his unwavering commitment to a glorious indigenous expression of the beauty, power, and poetry of the American spirit embodied in his stunning buildings.

The scholar looking for substantive research on Sullivan will find little here that is not already covered more comprehensively elsewhere. But Smith has created a vehicle which has the potential to bring Sullivan back where he belongs; the hearts and minds of a whole new generation of admirers. What is most thrilling about Smith's film is that the scholars and historians appearing in the film are accessible, engaging people who are keeping the dialog on Sullivan's importance palpably and scintillatingly alive. I encourage amateur and professional historians alike to treat this film as an academic bibliography from which to proceed with additional research.

I have met and communicated with some fascinating and brilliant authorities on Louis Sullivan through this film. I hope others will be inspired to do the same.

Thanks Mark.
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Elegy (I) (2008)
Some movies shout. Others whisper. Elegy is the latter.
13 August 2010
Some movies shout. Others whisper. Elegy is the latter. Not some stultifying susurration like rustling leaves, though every bit as gentle. Rather, Elegy is so scintillatingly sparse that you can clearly hear the powerful sound of hearts beating, sometimes together, but mostly alone.

The cast is breathtaking, each marshaling their considerable talents not just in perfect harmony, but also in astonishing synergy. In a world drunk on megastars and blockbusters, it's easy to forget that there are actors, real actors, towering talents who, though their names might not be on the tip of your tongue, can, quite simply, act their asses off without chewing the scenery like a rapacious raptor.

Pick one. Every member of the cast is superb, delivering Oscar® caliber performances so seemingly effortlessly that you almost don't notice that that's Deborah Harry, or Dennis Hopper, or, well, you get the picture. Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz, perhaps surprisingly, generate enormous energy tête-à-tête. Not the bawdy burst of thunder, but the infinitely more subtle and brilliant electricity of lightning.

The story revolves around a complacent intellectual (Kingsley) who successfully secures his ivory tower into an unassailable fortress until he sets out to seduce a beautiful young student (Cruz). It is adapted from Philip Roth's novel "The Dying Animal", and one wonders which animal, and which manner of dying, Roth had in mind with the title, as there are degrees of death throughout. Roth is best known literarily for "Portnoy's Complaint", and cinematically for "Goodbye Columbus" (both movies having featured Richard Benjamin), but this story deserves its place among his œuvre.

Director Isabel Coixet, probably better known for her French films, wore many hats, even acting as camera operator and music supervisor. She is gifted by a screenplay exquisitely crafted by Nicholas Meyer, himself an accomplished director as well as writer. Again, the synergy is obvious, as the movie coheres in every detail.

This movie languished in my Netflix queue for far too long. Don't make the same mistake. This is a rare treat for real movie fans.
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Good cinema that almost achieved greatness.
11 August 2010
The Fountainhead is an ambitious adaptation of Ayn Rand's immensely popular novel of the same name. Adapting Rand is no small feat. She had a tendency to be overpoweringly didactic, a trait that she perfected in The Fountainhead and then extended with the later Atlas Shrugged.

It is often said that every college student becomes enamored of Ayn Rand, and then they grow up. I too had a young man's flirtation with Ms. Rand, but ultimately came to regard her much vaunted Objectivism with the same amused disdain with which I eventually came to view most philosophies based on naïve absolutes. Indeed, if you're not a Rand fan, you will probably find this film a bit tiresome.

Like her character, Howard Roark, Rand insisted that there be no modifications to her work, and that every word of her screenplay be left intact. This explains the famously dreadful dialog, as Rand, a philosopher and novelist, was prone to speeches, interminably wearisome though they may be, to advance her intellectual themes. Gary Cooper struggled with his courtroom speech, at the time the longest cinema speech in history, as did viewers who found it difficult to grasp.

Although many people regard the film as a bit of a camp oddity, it is saved from such a fate by a remarkable collection of talent. King Vidor, previously better known for silent films, imparts a visual expressiveness to the film. The legendary Max Steiner's thrilling score moves the plot majestically from one diatribe to another. Cinematographer Robert Burks, who later became the genius behind Hitchcock's inspired visual vocabulary, supplies no end of visual drama.

But the real drama, both on screen and off, was the incendiary combination of Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Cooper, at forty-seven, was far too old to play Roark, though he makes a game effort, saddled a bit, perhaps, by his famous stoicism. Neal, an unknown ingénue, was nevertheless Cooper's equal on screen, luminous, exotic, and intelligent, and their off screen tryst simply added to the buzz about this highly anticipated project.

Rand, all of five foot two and with vast brown eyes you could drown in, saw things a bit differently to say the least. Her idea of a steamy romance scene, the rape of a woman barely out of childhood by a man twenty-five years her senior, caused many to denounce The Fountainhead, and barely made it past the censors of the day. I also got the impression that the young Miss Francon was objectified by all who knew her, again an artifact of the times, but Patricia Neal's smoldering screen presence easily pushes that issue aside.

Ultimately, despite her unrepentant pedantism, Rand's works are significant touchstones in culture, and this film captures her vision well. Still, you either love her or hate her, and those in the latter group are most likely going to hate this film as well. After all these years, I find the film interesting mainly as Patricia Neal's launching, and that alone is accomplishment enough for any movie.

Easily worthwhile for its historical significance, The Fountainhead is good cinema that almost achieved greatness. The common allusion to Frank Lloyd Wright as the model behind Roark is probably unfounded. If you know anything about Wright, including the fact that he was primarily an architect known for residential structures, it seems much more likely that the real life model for Roark was Wright's liebermeister, Louis Sullivan, the Father of the Skyscraper and of Modernism in architecture, although the structures in the film more closely resemble some absurd hybrid of Wright's later work and the urban structures of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

In any event, such concerns are incidental to the film's success. It works well and stands the test of time as a statement of Rand's ideas in a contemporary work to which she contributed heavily.
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A delight not to be missed.
6 August 2010
It seems that dance-themed movies are almost by definition, if you will pardon the pun, a little offbeat. I suppose one could make pseudo-intellectual references to dance as metaphor, but, in the end, I think dance is dance and that's just fine. And so is this movie – just fine, wonderfully, delightfully fine.

Writer/director Randall Miller deftly employs the frame story literary device to weave two disparate narratives into a third, unifying story line. While this literary conceit was necessary to incorporate a short film of the same name that Miller made fifteen years previous to this film, it is nonetheless cleverly handled and flawlessly executed. One actor even appears in both time-lines. As a child he plays one of the central characters in his boyhood story, and as an adult, he plays the colleague of another central character. This is done imperceptibly, and is almost in inside joke to those who are aware of the earlier film.

Without giving too much away, the story lines all revolve around the eponymous Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School; how one character, recalling his youth there, struggles to return for a rendezvous he promised as a boy to make on this day, and how his struggle leads a grieving widower to make his own journey there, where he will find, well, you'll have to see for yourself what he finds, but, believe me, it's worth it.

The cast is surprisingly heavy with A-list (and some solid B-list) talent. Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle: The Full Monty) is a widower going through the motions of his life as a baker, unable to get past the suicide of his wife. Carlyle excels at bringing unexpected layers to his roles, and this is no exception. His character encounters challenges and inspirations that become life changing, and Carlyle renders them perfectly.

John Goodman is one of those actors who, despite being gifted, are almost, if you will pardon another pun, too large a personality in real life to be effective in most roles. Here, the circumstances surrounding his character make it work beautifully. Similarly, Danny DeVito, who has but a cameo appearance, is delicately downplayed with surprising effectiveness. One almost wonders how Miller managed to assemble this impressive cast, as if he won some Hollywood casting lottery, but the fact that he is Rhea Perlman's cousin might explain at least DeVito's willingness to do the film. Rhea's father even appears.

I have always loved Mary Steenburgen, and her more or less title role as Miss Hotchkiss is no disappointment. Her characteristically cracking voice is just what the character needs to seem somewhat surreal. Oscar® winner Marisa Tomei delicately inhabits the female lead of the story, and brings closure and redemption to the bereaved widower. Camryn Manheim has a brief but powerful appearance, and even Sonia Braga was somehow convinced to join a cast inexplicably overloaded with talent. Add to that Sean Astin, Adam Arkin, Ernie Hudson, and even a deliciously counter-cast Donnie Wahlberg, and you begin to see what I mean about the surfeit of talent.

All of that talent wasn't for naught. The ensemble melds beautifully, delicately supported by Mark Adler's gorgeous soundtrack and all orchestrated with preternatural grace and subtlety by auteur director/writer/producer/editor Randall Miller. Films like this go largely unnoticed, and most of its fan base comes from people who caught it as part of some tedious and pretentious film festival or other. I was fortunate to have placed the film in my Netflix queue so I could watch it sans pretense, where I could experience it personally, as it was meant to be seen.

Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is simply a delight not to be missed.
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Inception (2010)
Reel in your expectations and enjoy the movie.
23 July 2010
It is rumored that Christopher Nolan took eight years to complete this story, his first original work in over a decade. Perhaps he just needed a little more time.

It doesn't surprise me that Nolan, the guilty party behind Memento, would come up with a movie where gratuitously Byzantine convolution is served up instead of anything resembling story. What does surprise me is that Nolan manages, eventually, to steer this vehicle to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. And it is for the sake of the marginally effective dénouement alone that I am willing to forgive a movie for having a blatantly video game structure, complete with levels and avatars and an artificially aggressive ticking clock to manufacture urgency.

I suppose one could carp about the fact that Ellen Page as Ariadne goes from badly dressed student to the Yoda of shared dreaming quite literally in the blink of an eye, but that would be complaining about the table service when the restaurant is on fire. Perhaps the biggest failing of the writing in Inception is that all the characters are forced to deliver lengthy, tedious expository dialogue to explain what just happened, what is currently happening, or what is about to happen.

Without giving too much away, this probably explains why, in the second act, Nolan has the wrong character delivering a speech. Basically, there are the main characters in a dream and then there are projections created by the characters. In one scene, a key plot element is explained by a projection, who would have no knowledge of the element, instead of the character, who is there to introduce it. It's an amateurish blunder that shows what happens when bad writers get in over their heads.

This basic story itself was done decades ago with far more finesse and wit in everything from Dreamscape to American Werewolf in London. In fact, the whole plot, if you can call it that, is as convincingly fresh as yesterday's dry toast. It's The Matrix meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who then get hijacked by Total Recall while Memento and Dark City stand back and laugh on the sidelines. It's as if Nolan wanted to outdo all of them by forcing them into a single mashed up meta-story.

So why watch this movie? I guess it all comes down to this – the movie, quite simply, is fun to watch. Lots of fun.

What Nolan lacks as a writer, and the list is long, he more than makes up for as a director. Inception is taut and energetic from start to finish. Even though the characters are ridiculously flat, they move effortlessly through Nolan's heightened reality. Inception may not be the best story literarily, but Nolan's way of telling it cinematically is superb.

In short, the story revolves around a team of people, scientist, spies, we're never really sure, who have perfected a way of entering other people's dreams. Once inside, they use the warped reality of dreams to extract secrets from the dreamer.

Apparently there are numerous rules regarding dream intervention. Violating them leads to dire consequences. Mercifully, the old saw that if you die in a dream you die in real life is not true here. It just wakes you up. Usually.

But along comes the mission to use the dream to implant an idea in the dreamer – Inception. Apparently this is difficult, but, of course, it must be done. Fortunately, it seems that the whole world is up on the dream-jacking process, and experts abound. It's even so commonplace that ordinary citizens go to seminars on how to fight back in their dreams, making them formidable foes in dreamland. So a new team is assembled and the game, as in video game, is on, and on, and on.

Suffice it to say that, in typical Nolan fashion, the story revolves around itself until it generates a tasty little paradox, within which the (almost) redeeming moments of the film reside. Ersatz intellectuals are already asking the central question of the film as proof of their depth, a sort of "Who is John Galt?" meta-meme. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand was such a pedantic, didactic writer I ended up not caring who John Galt was. In similar fashion, after Nolan has drummed away at his central issue for so long it grew tedious, I walked away from this movie not caring about the answer to "The Question."

I'd say, reel in your expectations a tad, then go see the movie and have fun.
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Predators (2010)
And open offer to Hollywood.
11 July 2010
It must be that I watch too many movies. Maybe I expect too much. I know it's not realistic to expect a big-budget, effects-laden alien attack movie to be too heavy on plot. But I don't believe that we should be expected to swallow a sort of deus ex machina setup with no explanation or exposition.

I can just see the script: "…and then the main characters, selected from around the world for being really bad people, drop inexplicably from the sky onto a planet untold light years away with parachutes and weapons just inadequate enough that they can be hunted." Really? This is your story? Oh, but, dear reader, there is more.

For some reason, the main characters seem to know things they could not possibly have observed, and explain them to one another in astonishing detail so we can at least attempt to fill in enough plot holes to suspend our disbelief long enough to take this anemic story for a spin. And spin it does, from bad to worse.

First, let's deal with the obvious issues. There are the warthog dogs the size of a Subaru with so many horns and fangs that eating any prey they manage to run down would be a physical impossibility. There's the celestial problems of a planet that supposedly always faces the sun, probably not conducive to the ecosystem presented, and which is in direct conflict with the fact that later in the movie it gets dark, not to mention the fact that it has neighbors large enough to rend it in an apocalypse of gravitational fury.

But it is in the subtleties, or lack thereof, that this movie fails, and it fails utterly. You might remember that the original Predator movie actually had a working back story, complete with reasonably well defined characters struggling with internal and external conflicts. You might also remember that the alien attack aspect was layered with subtle suspense upon the storyline in the original. Here, it is the film's sole raison d'être, and it's tedious, not suspenseful.

Having forsaken everything that might have made this muddle a movie, its creators rely instead upon tawdry tricks. There are mawkishly re-imagined scenes from the original movie. And of course there's the trick casting. Adrien Brody does a creditable job as a bad man, but the grunting brute routine is a little wearisome, especially when contrasted with his out of the blue, half-assed Hemingway quotation. And if you're wondering why Topher Grace is in the movie, don't ignore the obvious. Besides, is it just my overactive "spider sense," or wasn't he already counter-cast in a big budget action sequel?

But the one towering issue I have with this mess is the same issue I have with all the previous sequels. It's the Predators themselves. Are we to believe that an alien race capable of interstellar flight and teleportation really have nothing more on their inscrutable insect minds than some endless demented hunting and taxidermy game? Are they some hopelessly retrograde culture? What other technological marvels have they devised? What happened to their civilization? Do they not have females in their species? What is their life cycle? Inquiring minds want to know.

Basically, this plays like an FPS video game, and not a partiularly good one. We expect more in a movie than running around shooting. So, I have an open offer to Hollywood. I am certain I can write a better script with these amazing creatures as characters. I don't have an agent. Contact me directly.
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Splice (2009)
A poorly articulated concoction
5 June 2010
I was the only person at the early matinée. I'm thinking everyone else knew something I didn't.

Hollywood loves this story; brilliant young scientists discover the impossible, while other people their age are still working on their dissertations, by ignoring the rules - for which, of course, they must pay a price. And they screw a lot.

Sometimes this can make for classic transgressive fiction, like Jekyll and Hyde. Other times you get Splice, an apt description for this poorly articulated concoction. Good science fiction uses science as a metaphor to explore some essential truth. Splice is all science, if you can call it that, and no fiction, as in the literary kind. It's as shallow as a mud puddle and about as interesting.

In the end, I simply wondered why this movie had to be made. So Adrien Brody could walk around in shirts he got from And what was with "NERD"? Are you kidding me? Is this supposed to be comedy? Well, I'll say this much. It was definitely laughable.

I have to admit, there was some small diversion in the gene splicing subject, but it wasn't the least bit insightful.
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Robin Hood (2010)
The Best Robin Hood Ever!
15 May 2010
If you were expecting a prissy nancy boy prancing around in chartreuse tights like some demented elf, dangling from vines like an over stimulated chimpanzee, and spouting supercilious aphorisms like a drunken stand up comic, this is not your movie. Ridley Scott has re-imagined Robin Hood as, of all things, an action hero. Actually, it seems that whenever Ridley Scott thinks of an action hero, he thinks of his Oscar® winning muse, Russell Crowe, and, as director-actor pairings go, that's a good thing.

It is ironic that Crowe, the oldest actor ever to play Robin Hood on the big screen, finds himself portraying the character in what is essentially a prequel to the story most people remember. This is, again, a good thing. To counter the objections to Crowe as Robin, he trimmed down for the role and, as can be seen in what I will refer to as "the chain mail scene", it worked beautifully.

The back story of Robin Hood overlaps with one of the most storied periods in English history, and the appearance of characters like Eleanor of Aquitaine recalls the epic history of Henry II and the rest of the Plantagenet clan, giving the story sweep and arc, rather than allowing it to be subsumed in another campy remake of an already overly campy and worn out story.

Crowe transforms Robin Hood into a smoldering warrior, but then, recall that his testosterone infused turn as Dr. John Nash made even a math geek macho. He also benefits, as he did in A Beautiful Mind, from a strong female lead, in this case Oscar® winner Cate Blanchett as Marion; clearly NOT a "maid" in this case, as a defiantly independent widow. Blanchett's Marion is a warrior in her own right, and she stands by her Robin in battle heroically.

The merry men are all here, though, like Crowe as Robin, they are less absurdly merry than you might expect. The one exception is Mark Addy as the dipsomaniacal Friar Tuck. As for the rest of the merry men, they seem to have focused more on "men" and less on "merry", yet another good thing.

This incarnation of the Robin Hood legend was a hotly sought after property. Every major role, including the leads and director, went through numerous changes or considered alternatives before being finalized and, while it's possible to envision a few other permutations, this one works just great. Brian Helgeland's story and script are superb, as one would expect. Co-writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have collaborated successfully in the past, and the team seems to have worked well again.

The most striking aspect of the movie, again as one would expect, is Ridley Scott's unmistakable direction. All the usual elements are here; rapid cut action shots, painterly compositions and dramatic lighting. But more than that, Scott's sense of the epic and heroic lift an otherwise tired story into a new and exciting realm.

Most of the negative reviews I've read seem focused on the fact that this is not some tragic remake of a Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn farce. I think this is its best point. This is not the best work of either Ridley Scott or Russell Crowe, but it is the best Robin Hood ever.
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A psychological drama grotesquely masquerading as a big budget thriller.
20 February 2010
I'm not particularly fond of Leo DiCaprio as an actor, although he is steadily developing into what may one day become greatness. But director Martin Scorsese has been great for so long he is worth seeing just on principle. And of course the previews were enticing. The movie itself was, however, entirely inert.

Once the anemic premise of Shutter Island unravels, which beings almost immediately and progresses with alarming rapidity, all you have left is a tedious and numbingly long dénouement that has been done before, only better. This movie has been likened to the work of M. Night Shayamalan, and the comparison is every bit the insult it was intended to be, as Shayamalan, unlike Scorsese, is known for crafting movies so pretentious, so insubstantial, and so dependent on their own hype. With Shayamalan it would have been expected. For Scorsese, I have to admit I was a bit shocked.

There were protracted financial and artistic complications that delayed the release of Shutter Island. The real tragedy, however, is that they couldn't prevent it altogether. The lurid score is almost mockingly overwrought. The endless and intentionally distracting flashbacks are tawdry and ineffective. Shutter Island is beautifully filmed, and its stars render creditable performances, but it is all for naught, as the film drowns on the ferry before its stars ever reach the island.

I am convinced that if Scorsese had been truer to Dennis Lehane's novel, rather than supplanting it almost entirely with Laeta Kalogridis' completely incongruous screenplay, there might have been something worthwhile. Shutter Island is a psychological drama grotesquely masquerading as a big budget thriller. If you want to see how it should be done, try Identity instead.
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The Wolfman (2010)
A Gothic literary classic comes to life.
15 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I read all the comments that complained about this movie not being wildly innovative and original. So I did some checking. And you know what? It turns out they were right. It seems there actually have been werewolf movies made before.

But it seems to me that those brilliant and learned film aficionados would have gone into the multiplex expecting to see something at least vaguely familiar. Why then were so many smartypants film buffs disappointed that this movie had so much in common with previous efforts based on the same story? Maybe they were expecting some tragically comic overacting like Gary Oldman in FFC's Dracula. Maybe they wanted to see another campy throwaway rehash of a Lon Chaney Jr. b-movie. What a pity. There was so much more to see.

First of all, what a treat it was to see actual actors in the movie. Little needs to be said about Sir Anthony Hopkins. His icy, reptilian portrayals of villains are legendary, and he does not disappoint here. I'm not a huge Emily Blunt fan, but her range and beauty are pleasing grace notes in everything she does. And Hugo Weaving? How many more times does he have to hit it out of the park before he finally gets the recognition he deserves?

But I, for one, went to see this movie for one reason. Benicio Del Toro. And I was not disappointed, although I was mildly surprised. Del Toro has just the right blend of handsome charm and animal presence to be convincing. His portrayal, while subtly understated, is also powerfully nuanced. The surprise was how well the diverse talents in the movie melded into an ensemble. Oh, so tasty.

The coup de grâce, however, is also the one thing that probably spoils this movie for most viewers. It finally takes a literary approach to what was once, and now is once again, a towering and epic literary tragedy, rather than a campy life support system for meaningless computer-generated special effects. Using Rick Baker was a stroke of genius. His masterful use of prosthetics and physical transformations gifted this movie with an elegance and immediacy so lacking in generations of poseur imitators.

Freed from the usual addiction to hokey visual effects, the movie is able to develop, with subtlety and sophistication, the tragic richness of the story. True literary tragedy depends on one simple premise. The tragic character must fall from grace, by no fault of his own, due to his inherent character flaw. The tragic character must ultimately be a victim, and his fall must be inevitable.

Our protagonist's path was determined long before he arrived on the moors. As he struggles heroically to overcome his own destiny, we witness the inevitability of his demise. This is the sine qua non of literary tragedy. Even American Werewolf in London got this right, deliciously and hilariously right, in fact, and this film is fraught with allusions to AWIL and other classics.

The cinematography is beautiful. The score is brooding, and not nearly as derivative as it might have been. I am so glad that Danny Elfman's score was reinstated. Elfman can do no wrong. Joe Jonhson's direction is at once effortless and masterful.

In short, if you are looking for a special effects cesspool like Twilight, stay home. If you want to see how a Gothic literary classic comes to life in the twenty-first century, this is your film.
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Party, swim, die.
11 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Honestly. Who makes these movies? Who decides to make them? Who pays to have them made? And why? Two million bucks they spent on this joke, and for what? What's it about? Shallow, stupid people busy being pretty on someone else's boat? But why would anyone care?

I suppose there is a feeble attempt at a redemption scene at the end, but it's vague and half-hearted. What's worse, given how utterly unlikeable all of the characters are, I would rather have seen them die gruesome deaths like in some slasher film than to survive to be shallow and stupid another day.

For Pete's sake, is it too much to ask to have characters with depth and complexity? Would a plot have been even remotely possible? Seriously, after contriving such a facile premise, the least they could have done was allow the characters to evolve and unfold in some at least mildly interesting ways, or experience something through which they might grow and develop. Isn't that why they make movies?

Look, save yourself the time. Here's the movie: party, swim, die. Now go do something entertaining instead of watching this preposterous movie.
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2012 (I) (2009)
At least the popcorn was good.
15 November 2009
In case you haven't heard, "2012" is about the end of the world. Actually, that's the entire plot, so maybe this should be considered a spoiler.

Estimates are that this movie cost about $260 million to make. I guess a quarter-billion dollars just doesn't buy what it used to. It's roughly twice what Roland Emmerich squandered on "The Day After Tomorrow," which is apropos, I suppose, since "2012", believe it or not, is every bit of twice as bad as "Day After."

I'm not even sure where to start, but writing is always a good launching point. "2012" is a careening, convoluted cacophony of practically every possible disaster movie cliché. We have the usual ticking clock, a common literary device, arbitrarily accelerated when the writer/director felt a need to heighten the tension. We have flat, transparent characters who end up being little more than placeholders around which to construct the endless, tiresome special effects. And, of course, we have the special effects, so shamelessly and randomly contrived as to render the destruction of the world tedious. I ended up wishing the world would hurry up and end already, but no, there had to be yet another, and another, and another, plot twist; inartfully conceived, predictably staged, and completely inert.

The cast fared no better. John Cusak is one of my favorite actors, but he had no character to portray. Do we really need another hack writer, failed husband derelict trying to remain relevant in the lives of his children vis-a-vis mommy's new, rich husband? The kids were just two-dimensional cutout characters - mere props in the CGI scenery. Danny Glover, a passable character actor, was completely out of his depth as The Last President of the United States. Even George Bush seemed competent and intelligent by comparison. Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson - all fine actors, were lost within characters lacking even a hint of humanity or depth.

The only thing this movie has going for it, although obviously not what Emmerich intended, is that it is pathetically funny. We laughed till our sides hurt as we called out each and every plot device before they were hauled out with all the subtlety of a train wreck and the unfailing predictability of an atomic clock. What's worse, each new twist was more ridiculous than the last until, as we roared with laughter, the entire Earth itself was conveniently shifted at the exact moment and extent necessary to start another cycle of completely absurd events.

"2012" is epically bad, monumentally stupid, and cataclysmically boring. At least the popcorn was good.
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