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The Darkest Hour (2011)
Better than you might think
Just got back from a screening of The Darkest Hour and honestly this film was better than I anticipated. I confess, I hadn't wanted to go at all but my friend insisted and so to keep the peace I went. Granted, the beginning is a uneven and it was unclear where the story was going but once it clicks in the thing moves right along. You are never sure who is going to die next and that helps keep the suspense level high. The acting is serviceable and the location is a refreshing change from the usual New York/Chicago skylines. It's frankly more interesting to watch the tale unfold against the dinginess of contemporary Moscow, and with Russian soldiers instead of Americans. Moreover, the special effects are simple, but effective.
In essence, invisible beings are here to steal our electricity and only insulators (e.g. glass or Faraday Cages) enable us to be hide from them. Because they are ruthless and utterly determined, there is no hope for negotiation, no chance for peace. Early on it is made clear either we win or we will be exterminated.
I liked everything about the movie, even though the alien invasion genre has gotten a bit tired of late. I was never bored and was always in suspense as to what would happen next. At 89 minutes, this joint Russian-American production probably could have taken more time with its story and characters, and not be in such a hurry to kill them off. Since the background is so different, maybe they could have shown us more of the city or used the locations more effectively.
Yet for all the obvious complaints one can make, the move works if you let it. I believe viewers will find it worth their while. Take it for what it is, and I honestly think you will have a good time at The Darkest Hour.
Sucker Punch (2011)
An astonishing film -- imagine "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" done in live-action anime
I just got back from the theater and instead of letting the film settle in my mind, I thought I would just dash out some random thoughts. This is one amazing movie, a beautifully told story, emotional, grim (how did this ever get a PG-13?), wonderfully cast and acted throughout. I was mesmerized during the entire film; Sucker Punch held my attention effortlessly.
So why is there so much negativity regarding it? It honestly looks like most critics did not get it, did not know how to respond to it, couldn't figure it out if the first 5 minutes and gave up. Even the negative reviews, and there are a lot of them, seem to be cribbing from other, as if few knew quite what to say. So instead of just watching the movie and going with it, they chose to ignore what was on the screen, as if they could not get back to the office (Oh, why did I chose to be film critic?) and pound out their reviews. They and their colleagues need to return their diplomas from film school. And then find another line of work.
I honestly do not believe you can absorb this movie in one sitting. Many will no doubt think they can ("Oh, I get it, girl power. Been there, done that") but I assure you they will be wrong. My initial guess is that the film is primarily about freedom: existential, psychological, and perhaps even political (and no, I do not mean only sexual politics). I believe the film is intended to be prophetic. It is urging us, in highly symbolic terms to be sure, to draw on all the sources of strength (including fantasy) that we possess -- just to survive. We will surely need them all in the coming years. I would like to have young people see this film, but as noted it isn't for the 16 and under set.
The reason being my primary source of admiration for the film: there is so much one can talk about after viewing this movie and that is a very good thing.
This is Snyder's masterpiece. This is his vision, wonderfully realized. It is incredibly sad that this film is being ignored by the critics and will likely be lost to much of the audience. There is talk it will even kill Snyder's career. And yet, all that is necessary to enjoy "Sucker Punch" is to simply go with it. Everything is logically laid out and is easy to follow. You will never get lost. One might still not get it all on first viewing, but I assure you there is plenty there to enjoy.
A personal note: I don't recall ever going to see a movie whose ratings were at 20% (as given in the well-known movie review site). I decided to take a risk after reading some fan-boy reviews and watching the previews. I am glad I did. I had liked Snyder's other films and this one was so damn intriguing, I could not resist.
The late, great film critic Gene Siskel stated that whenever two (or more) critics go to a movie and there is strong disagreement between them, the movie must have something. Trust me, "Sucker Punch" has a lot, and it's all great.
A movie of dreams, a dream of movies
I have been reluctant to comment on Inception; there seemed little I could add to the already extensive commentary. My initial sense was that Inception, while it was a welcome relief to standard summer fare, possessed enough flaws and precedents to render its claims to greatness suspect. I gave it 8 stars over my first viewing and let it go at that.
Now, having watched Inception twice since then and having read the screenplay (see the excellent, Inception: The Screenplay), I have changed my mind. Inception is worthy of the praise given it. Without reservation I now give it a 10. This is the first occasion in which I have changed my verdict on a film following my initial viewing. Why? Because Inception is easily the best film of the decade in terms of sheer intelligence, the best film I would argue since The Truman Show. Moreover, its plot of obsessive love, fear of falling, and frightening dreams, makes it worthy of comparison to Vertigo. As good as Vertigo? The fact that Inception can be mentioned without blanching in the same sentence with Hitchcock's masterpiece tells you something.
I came to love the movie but I was desperate to say something new. I wanted to comment on the richness of the world of Inception, and give the viewer a bit more of an understanding of what underlies it.
In the near future, a drug has been discovered that enables people to share a common dream. Viewed by many as a fascinating opportunity for creativity, one danger is that a dreamer's mind can be invaded by an intruder and unless the victim has been trained to resist these "extractor(s)," he can be tricked into revealing his innermost secrets (visualized as being within a symbolic dream "safe"). The battle between a trained mark and one or more skilled extractors can be harrowing.
This technology can be described as a form of controlled lucid dreaming. Until this discovery, all experience had been that lucid dreams cannot be controlled; anything could happen. Since most people have had them, you know what I mean. But using this drug and its delivery system (termed PASIV in the screenplay book), lucid dreams can be controlled. These shared lucid dreams, however, are still subject to external conditions and the dreamer's own internal state.
Note: the idea of entering into people minds while they are dreaming is not new. See the movie "Dreamscape (1984)," which has dream specialists invading the mark, as protectors or attackers. But there are some remarkable new angles in Inception's approach.
First, the dreams can be recursive. There can be dreams within dreams within dreams, though at each additional level the dream state becomes increasingly unstable, requiring the addition of powerful sedatives to maintain control.
Second, the recursive levels cannot be extended indefinitely. They terminate in a state called "Limbo," i.e. "unconstructed dreamspace." Limbo may be infinite in expanse. Little is known of it, though according to the movie's math, time moves roughly 8000 times faster in Limbo relative to reality.
Third, the minds of the participants, particularly if there is an emotional involvement between them, can find their dream "waves" have become blended or entangled.
There are profound metaphysical dangers in this, ontological and psychological. Foremost is the loss of one's sense of what is real, over time being increasingly unable to distinguish between the dream state and reality. Then there is the loss of one's sense of self. Where the dreamers are emotionally involved, e.g. in love, their minds can begin to merge to such an extent that it is a difficult for them to determine where "I" begins and the other takes over, who is dreaming what in other words. There are mechanisms, "totems" for keeping track of where one is in these dream spaces, but the problem is unsolved.
Into this world strides Dom Cobb, one of the best "extractors," a disturbed, troubled man, with overwhelming feelings of guilt towards is dead wife, Mal. Cobb is desperately seeking an escape, and return home to the only happiness he has ever known.
Inception is strikingly original not only in that it introduces a new technology but a new terminology as well. A shoe-in for multiple nominations, it is brilliantly edited with a superb score, special-effects, and a wonderfully, attractive and likable cast. Nolan's meticulous screenplay pursues its sober and somber plot (you may smile/chuckle a few times but that is it) with grace and high-intelligence.
I wish I could sum up the meaning of the movie, but I can't. One possibility is that Inception is an allegory of the movie experience, a dream of movies if you will. There is a strong overlap in what Cobb and his team are pursuing with the movie experience itself as a shared dream in which we share our emotional secrets. Nolan plays on this, but the idea of a movie as reflexive of and subversive to one's life has been often done and it is unclear if Inception adds much.
Another is that Inception should be taken as a movie of dreams, i.e. on its own terms; that it works best if one simply accepts what is being shown on the screen and goes with it. Admittedly, for most, multiple viewings will be required to enable them to get to the heart of the movie's emotions but they will be amply rewarded if they do. The central vision in Inception of life's tragedy is compelling. Whether in the dream state or in reality, we cannot escape ourselves and it is impossible to tell if the happiness we have is real or an illusion.
ZombieBusters: Your funny bone will be ripped out and gnawed on
No critical analysis is possible. I just flat out loved this thing and there is not much more that can be said. It's the best comedy I have seen since Tropic Thunder. There's gore galore, it's a zombie movie after all, and it's not for kids but the worst stuff is over in the first few minutes of the movie. From then on, it's sheer inspired goofiness all the way. Zombieland is so good in fact, I wonder if it will kill off the zombie genre. If you watch Zombieland, you simply will not be able to watch another zombie movie without thinking of this one. Casting is perfect. I think this is Woody Harrelson's best comedic performance since Kingpen. And Bill Murray is in it! And he's funny for the first time is years and they're riffing on Ghostbusters! OMG, what more could you want? Man, we needed this movie.
The premise is that some kind of virus infects the burger chains and the next thing you know anyone who has eaten one of the mad-zombie burgers is crazy for "manwiches." I don't know about you but it makes sense to me. Now, movies about only a few survivors of the end of the world taking on the crazed remnants of civilization are old hat these days. Think about (or not) that awful Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. Half the trailers these days show movies where people are running around screaming about the end of the world. Get a grip.
Zombieland makes the end of the world fun again. It doesn't worry about anyone's sensitivity and doesn't have a serious bloody bone in its body. It's like Mad Max on goofy gas by way of Douglas Adams. Someone must have told the writers to go crazy and not worry about a thing. And you know what, the result is a script that is pretty darn good, a real rarity these days. The survival tips which pepper the film were so good in fact, I was tempted to take notes. I mean if you must have an end of the world movie, at least tell us how to deal with it. Zombieland does just that.
My only criticism is that I wished they have made the movie longer so we could see how other survivors are coping (in the film we see only one, a nun who can dispatch zombies with the best of them). I'm embarrassed to say this, but I hope there is a sequel.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
An attempt at a John Hughes movie without John Hughes -- it doesn't work.
I have seen this movie but not in a single sitting. What happens it that it is playing on the TV, I watch for a few minutes, find that I have take all that I can take and then leave the room. During those few minutes I do not laugh once, experience no pleasure in what I am viewing, and find myself more depressed that angry. Interestingly, I am told the psychological states are incompatible, that is, one cannot be angry and depressed at the same time. This movie tests that theory.
I think part of the problem is that I spent nearly ten years in Chicago so as I am watching the scenes I am thinking of my own experiences in that rotten town and thus I am clearly bringing a lot of my baggage to the piece. It is entirely possible, I am willing to concede, that if you are not a Chicago denizen you will find the piece amusing. If so, I envy you.
And yet. John Hughes set his films in Chicago and those movies worked for me. I think the difference is that Hughes was a first rate writer. I think it obvious he knew how to comically balance his situations, as well as make his characters both sympathetic and believable. In a comedy (as distinguished from a farce) this balance vital. And it is not easy to achieve. If it was everyone would be making great movies and we would not have to fret as we do in the real world wondering when genius will ever appear. In "Adventures in Babysitting," it doesn't. I hated those characters.
There is a difference, profound and real, between sympathetic and simply pathetic.
For me every scene in this movie is a clunker. There is no humor, no humanity, no people one can recognize. Just actors reading their lines as if it all they can do to restrain themselves from screaming them out, certain that finally hilarity will ensue, this time for sure! It's like watching the antics of very bad comedians. It's embarrassing and after a while, usually at the point when I get up and leave, I start to feel pity for all concerned, which is a kind of emotional connection, I suppose. Elizabeth Shue is terrible. She doesn't act, certainly not act comically, and it's entirely possible she can't. But lord how she tries. She looks older than 17, and acts way younger like a seven-year old straining in a school play certain that this is how one gets an award. And she is not alone. It is as if everyone cannot relax and let the tale flow. As if everyone simply has no idea what they are doing.
Now, this was an early effort for Chris Columbus and he clearly would improve and having better writers (e.g. John Hughes himself) certainly helped, so perhaps some forgiveness is in order. But the film just reeks of desperation. Yet like I said it may work for some. If any of the above appeals to you, and it clearly did some of the reviewers, then go get the DVD and knock yourself out. Otherwise, avoid this mess like you would a dark Chicago alley where as you hurry by you can only see shadows and hear muttered threats.
Star Trek (2009)
A near perfect cast saves the day.
When I first saw stills from this movie, I grudgingly admitted that the physical resemblance of the new cast to the original was strong, for the most part, but there is so much more that would be required to make this work. I honestly feared the worst from what I came to think of as "Tiger Beat Trek." So I can happily say that I was pleased, relieved one might way, when I saw the final product. Again, the cast for the most part nails it and goes beyond nailing it. In some cases, such as Karl Urban's take on Sylvester McCoy, the impersonation, the channeling if you will, is astonishing. Let's be clear on this. Urban steals every scene he is in. He doesn't have to but he could have carried the entire movie. He deserves some kind of award for his work here. I would have been happy enough to have watched "Bones McCoy: Space Doctor, part I" as I was to see "Star Trek: The Reboot."
The guys who do Kirk and Spock and Scotty are very good too.
So while the script I found to be confused and noisy in many places, is serviceable enough and gets the job done it was not worthy of the opportunity that had been given. The effects and sets are perfect, but with a little more work, a good film could have been a great one. With a cast this good, surely someone must have thought at some point: these guys are fantastic. Let's dump this pseudo-science, black hole, time travel stuff and really give them something to work with. And maybe in the second movie, they will. I have confidence there will be a second movie.
It was disappointing to have them riff on the the old series (which was as much fun to watch as it must have been to do) and fail to go beyond it. The original series was a mixed bag, to be sure, but it worked astonishingly well when they had good writers (and they certainly did the first season and for some of the second -- not so much the third, however). Good writing can triumph over anything, which is why fans of the original series can go back again and again to episodes like "City on the Edge of Forever," and "Amok Time." However, the greatest effects and production values in the world would never be able to salvage "Spock's Brain." When you have one of the best ensemble casts going, get a script that is worthy of them.
And I don't mean all that boring philosophical stuff. The original series wasn't really about anything so much as it was about this wonderful cast that Roddenberry with his great gifts as a producer had assembled, and would never be able to equal again. Star Trek is family, as another Gene, Siskel, noted. Perhaps, like a family real reunion, it is great when it happens that every one is looking and feeling good and holds promise for years of good times to come.
Keep the promise. All that I ask is that next time boldly go where few writers have gone before, to real feeling and depth and story, letting the work of Harlan Ellison be our guide, instead of roping in one more set of writers who don't quite know what to do when an incredible opportunity is handed them.
Brilliant, beautiful, ugly, fascinating, baffling, thrilling, but where's the story?
Let me start off by saying that don't believe anyone can fail to admire the sheer audacity of the Watchmen. Unlike, TDK which danced around the R-rating, but stuck with PG-13 to ensure the box office, this movie embraces the R. It runs with it. This movie is frightening enough in terms of sheer intensity of, well, everything, not just the violence. It will twist your stomach. It all but shouts the viewer to deal with it or leave. You got to like that.
Yet while I was all prepared to give a thoughtful review when I got home from the showing this morning, I couldn't do it. Thinking about this movie is the wrong way to approach it. Ebert says a movie is about feeling. It should be about more than feeling, it can be about more than feeling (think of Vertigo, a movie about as far removed from this one as you could imagine), but sometimes feeling is all you have. Fine. Watchmen is a visceral experience, one that overwhelms every other aspect of the film. Intellectually, the film makes little sense, even as satire. Ebert, for example, is carrying on in his reviews about quantum physics and the vistas, visual and otherwise, opened by Dr. Manhattan. I cannot think of a more wrong headed approach to this film. You want Quantum Mechanics? Read a book.
This movie is like a gut punch and a kick when you are down. You don't see it coming and as you are gasping for breath, you certainly do not see where it is going. To the movie's credit, so powerful are the feelings little else matters, but I will mention them anyway. There are great characters, so appealing I wanted to see them in their own movie -- I really liked Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, who together give the film what positive uplift it has. Rorsach? Of course. The visuals are amazing, the narrative drive seldom flags. And by those standards, I guess that is what you would call them, Watchman is fantastic. I can't recommend it enough, though leave the kids (and your girlfriend) at home. But as a story, I'm can't really comment. What is there to comment on? It's not there. Save the world, blah blah. Done that. There's something that might have been a story if the writers had been permitted to create one, but they weren't. That shadowy something, to be sure, is serviceable enough, but is as brittle as Dr. Manhattan's Mars contraption. Brilliantly edited, wonderful to behold, but it is crushed by a hurtling meteor of feelings. And if feeling is what you want, then for 2 and 3/4 hours this movie will transport you away from a world that is numbing, to somewhere.
Here's an example of what I mean. In this alternative history, sticking just with the opening montage, we see the Comedian, one of the "SuperHeroes," (and one nasty dude) assassinate Kennedy. Why he does this we are never told. How he gets away with this we are never told. What are the implications of this horrendous crime in the Watchman universe, we never learn. This is not a minor narrative lapse. And don't shove the comic book in my face as I'm watching the movie. In a real film, this act would be crucial to understanding this very twisted character. It is not so much the lapse of taste (there are plenty of those), but a complete failure of story telling judgment. Of course, no one cares, certainly not audience I was with to whom the Kennedy assassination is as psychologically remote as the building of the pyramids. But to me it is bothersome. Again the movie attitude was -- got a problem with that? Go home. I stayed.
Admire the Watchmen for its daring, its courage, its brilliance. See the film for it astonishing polarities of beauty and ugliness, be fascinated by the characters, wonder at the scope of it all. But don't think about it. There's no story there.
An American Carol (2008)
Astonishing: the riskiest, most polarizing film of the year
If there ever was a film that deserved the appellation "Event Movie" this is it. I know of no film comparable except "Team America: World Police," and maybe "Red Dawn." To say this movie goes against the PC grain is like saying oceans are wet. That this movie is going to make a lot of people unhappy is obvious from the IMDb vote totals already. I also suspect that most of the people who voted the film as "awful" have not seen it. All that stuff aspiring film makers learn in film school about "challenging conventional wisdom" and not worrying about "bad manners," has been met with a resounding: "But we didn't mean this!"
And no doubt they didn't. Zucker and company did, however, and one criticism that could be given is that the film goes after everything. I honestly do not believe they left anything out. I could also say that sometimes the comedic styles don't gel that well together. And I could add that without Kevin Farley's bravura performance as "Michael Malone," managing to make his target both sympathetic and repulsive until the final redemptive scene, it wouldn't have worked, or at least nearly as well. The danger of this movie turning into a piece of counter-propaganda must have clear from the start and I think for the most part the film-makers avoided that trap. In sum this patriotic retelling of the Christmas Tale works very well as it goes right to the essence of the nation's past and current struggles to underscore that most unpalatable of historical truths: that wars will always happen as long as the alternatives are worse.
Like "Team American: World Police," the film works best when it is at its most serious. The movie's best scene has George Washington in a church just talking with Malone. It's calm, muted, and deeply felt. The scene had to be done just right for the payoff to work, and it is.
I suppose I could say now that the film should be a must see for students, etc., but that would be decidedly wrong. This country was built on the principle of individual liberty that has as one implication the freedom to ignore this movie. That the cost of this seemingly trivial freedom is so high is one of the points "American Carol" excellently makes.
I can only hope the best for everyone who appeared in and worked on this amazing film. It is quite likely that Mr. Farley will be strongly urged to do public penance for his participation in this film, should he wish to continue working -- such is the level of public discourse we have descended to in this country. The leftist intellectuals and professors entrenched in American campuses (mercilessly lampooned in the film's most all-out parody sequence) have done their job well. Fortunately, while their students who have not seen the film vote negatively on IMDb.com, the movie exists and is being distributed (I gather by a French company which in itself tells us a great deal) and will go on to DVD, etc.
So, would Mr. Super-Patriot Fascist expect or want to see a movie like "American Carol" every week? Well no, but I am grateful to see one like it every few years.
Note: I had originally intended to give American Carole 8 stars, but because of it's sheer audacity and Farley's superb performance I had no trouble giving it a 10.
The Astronaut Farmer (2006)
An astonishing film, easily one of the year's best
It's clear a lot of critics don't know what to make of this movie. It's best described as mostly a fantasy with naturalistic elements. The emotions are real, they are strong, and the film is always grounded in the earth. But you are never quite sure where it is going. It will veer into farce, then melodrama, then social commentary, and back again. It seems to be taking place in the present day, yet not quite: the sensibilities are from the 60s, the entrepreneurial we-can-do-it spirit from the 80s, and the despair from the 00s. It is strange, and it is dreamlike, and at times it seems to barely make sense, but it all works. The audience I was with was enthralled and almost all of them stayed through the end of the credits -- a good sign indeed.
I can imagine what the high-concept presentation must have been like: "It's just your typical save-the-farm family drama, only dad is a . . ."
"Don't tell me. A space alien," yawns the studio-head.
"Well, close, but not quite. He's a former astronaut who may be a nut case, we're never quite sure."
The studio-head is a little more interested. "And he;s planning to blow up the world?"
"No, though a lot of people think he is."
The head of the studio thinks about. "I think I like it. Throw in some cute kids and we've got ourselves a movie."
I'm being cynical, of course, and this is not a cynical movie. There is not a false note in it in fact, the music is perfect, the cinematography is first-rate, the casting is superb (watch for Bruce Dern looking very similar to Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies). While inspirational, follow your dream movies usually don't work for me, this one does, it has such an amazingly goofy charm that only the stiffest of film critics could resist it (and alas, according to that well-known movie review site, as I write this just under 40% don't get it.) If this movie in not on most 10-best lists at year-end, it is going to be one heck of a year.
I don't know if the film is going to do well. Early box office looks weak, but word- of-mouth may help. See it in a theater now if you are at all hesitant. This one will be remembered.
One final note: something like this story could actually happen in a generation or two, assuming humanity doesn't destroy itself. That spaceship-in-the-barn tale will make a great movie when it does. This story makes a great movie now.
United 93 (2006)
I can't recall seeing a more intense film.
How can one give a spoiler to this film?
Make no mistake about it: this is strong stuff. For the most part the movie is played very low key, letting the events speak for themselves. Anything more would have been too much. The score is effective, but so muted that most of the time you do not know it is there. All the actors (and the air traffic controllers who in many cases play themselves, an extraordinary feat of casting) do an outstanding job. Both technically and as a story, the film is a marvel. You are there, and I sympathize with those who would prefer they weren't. If you have doubts, you may want to wait for the DVD.
But I have no sympathy for the accuracy hypocrites, the same who couldn't get enough of Michael Moore's rubbish. Yes, it is accurate. In broad outline, we know exactly what happened and the film conveys it very well indeed. Are there things we can't know? Certainly. For example, the hijackers may well have been scared (two of them anyway) but how can we ever know their feelings? What we do know and get to see is that they will murder even when there is no necessity. Greengrass spares us nothing.
Note to Hollywood: Jodi Foster is nowhere to be seen and she was not missed.
As I write the film has opened very well on a per screen basis, but who knows how well it will do over the next several weeks. I certainly can't imagine anyone wanting to see this film more than once, but I have been wrong on that before. Like a lot of people, I have wanted to forget 9/11/2001. "United 93" brings it all back. After I left the theater, I was grateful. But it's up to you to decide if that is a good or bad thing.
The New World (2005)
A Footnote to Days of Heaven -- but what a footnote.
I saw "Days of Heaven" exactly 27 years ago today. I remember thinking as I was driving home, this man (Terrence Malick) will never be able to top himself. As a artist he had gone as far as he possibly could go. He would never get out of those wheat fields. In other words, I was in religious awe of what he had accomplished.
Perhaps Terry agreed, because he was not to make another movie for 20 years.
Malick is, I believe, obsessed with myth. Days of Heaven is a retelling of the biblical myth of Abraham and Sarah, transformed and reset in turn of the century America. But the story Pocahantas has no biblical counterpart. This is pure American, and the telling of the story is as fresh as it can be. That it is an American myth speaks well for this country and its history. True, Malick pulls his punches on both sides, but the movie has a look and feel of astonishing historical reality. The Indians are as frightening as they are fascinating, the settlers are as desperate as they are determined. Tragedy under such circumstances was inevitable, but what linger is a tale of such beauty and poignancy, it may not be possible to do the story again -- though I am certain at some future time, someone will try.
Technically, the film is a marvel. This is Kilcher's movie and she carries it wonderfully. 2005 was a great year for young girl actresses (Dakota Fanning, Georgia Henley), but Kilcher surpasses them all. The male leads offer great support to her performance: tough and taciturn (perhaps a bit too taciturn in the case of Colin Ferrell). I especially liked that all the characters were treated with respect. I kept waiting for the obligatory evil white guy to say something like; "Don't want no injun in our town . .. ." Didn't happen. These are real people on all sides trying to cope with a situation well beyond their control or understanding. But they rise to the doomed occasion wonderfully.
There is truth here even if (parts of it) didn't happen (or at least we are highly unsure if the particular events happened.)
See the movie. Yes, there are plenty of echoes of Days of Heaven (yes, Malick will never get out of those wheat fields), but it doesn't hold the movie back. Unreservedly recommended as the best film of 2005 (which was, in retrospect, a good year.)
War of the Worlds (2005)
A magnificent metaphor for our time
This is not a science fiction movie. It is not an action adventure blockbuster. It is not a war movie. It is a horror movie about human fears, how we react to the unthinkable, and how humanity may ultimately prevail (with some luck.)
There has definitely been a lot of confusion about the film. Clearly while most critics like the movie, it has befuddled some audiences and left some critics cold. This is unfortunate, because what Spielberg has done is taken a Victorian tale, and projected it effortlessly to our time. So powerful is Wells's myth, that the essence of the story remains intact, while Spielger adds what I believe to be some of the most incredible action sequences and set pieces in the history of film. I confess, I was drained by the end of "War of the Worlds." There is little in the way of a catharsis here. We are just glad to be alive. We are left stunned by the fact that humanity was completely at the mercy of a power that was waging a war of extermination. The power in the movie was the aliens, but it is made very clear it could be any human power as well.
The film has been criticized for "exploiting 911 imagery." This is nonsense. Spielberg as the film maker can go anywhere he want with this tale -- as long as he does a good job, and one with integrity. He does. The imagery is right. It belongs in the movie -- unless we want to pretend the day did not happen.
I have been highly critical of the man since "Schindler's List," (not that he lies awake at night worrying about that), but I have to commend him here. This movie deals with our fears so well that I am tempted to call it the first great post- 911 film. If you see it in the right frame of mind, of what it is intending and not- intending to do, you will be rewarded.
Overall, the film is a technical masterpiece. Every actor rises to the occasion. Tom Cruise especially does a remarkable job as the American Everyman who fights back with brains and extraordinary courage. And Dakota Fanning -- what can I say? The girl is going to have as many Oscars in her career as Streep and Hepburn. Even Tim Robbins, as a man ultimately driven mad by the situation, is first rate.
My only criticism is that the ending is too abrupt. The film should have been longer to ease the audience into Wells's conclusion of the tale. And the "Searchers"-like final shot left me a bit confused. But these are quibbles.
In short, well done, Spielberg and Company. I am impressed.
Team America: World Police (2004)
The year's most gut-wrenching comedy and political satire
Right from the start, this has to be said: do not take your children, your parents, your wife, or your liberal friends to this movie. For one thing, it's hard to laugh when your jaw is on the floor. This could cause injuries. For another, you don't want sensitive PC types getting all huffy and demanding their money back and
afterward complaining that your ruined their minds, etc. This is one rough film. I haven't laughed so hard in years, but be warned.
Let's face it: we live in uptight times. An awful lot of people take themselves far too seriously and while they don't mind dishing it out, have a bit of a problem taking it. For this kind of attitude, see Ebert's lame review. While TA:WP strives to be an equal opportunity offender, I suspect that the Left will be far more upset watching this then any of the non-Left. They simply are not used to being
ridiculed. Right-wingers are, which gives people like me, a rightist libertarian, an enormous advantage in life. Actually, very few conservatives will see this film. Most conservatives are stiffs anyway, who freak at the thought of a man propositioning his own wife, and who think sex is the ghastly thing men do to women, except when making babies -- and don't you dare push it beyond that,
mister! You show those types a scene with a couple of marionettes going at it, and they better have nurses and oxygen bottles close by (ala William Castle).
So the audience for this film will be limited, which is a shame because it is the best comedy in years and may well be the most trail-blazing film comedy since Blazing Saddles, and by far the most astute political satire. Let me put it this way: if you are a fan of the Penn & Teller series Bullshit! you will probably like this movie. If you are the type who would attempt to watch an episode and find yourself screaming, "They said a word you can't say on TV!", better pass.
I was thinking after seeing the film that one movie it reminded me of, in terms of sheer visceral impact, was "The Passion of the Christ." This film also takes its premise and story and runs with it, letting nothing stand in the way. Both are obscene films, but for a reason: one for violence (fully justified), the other for language (also fully justified). Both are hard "R" and earned it.
Note: there was only one scene in TA:WP (near the end) that I might consider
cheap. The rest worked perfectly. In some scenes, remarkably, the movie
turned serious and moving despite all its efforts.
Anyway, if you don't fall into the above excluded categories (I imagined that if Penn and Teller had been sitting by me in the theater even they would have
been squirming), see this amazing film.
Best Summer Movie of the year.
Not much I can say except run, don't walk to see this film. This is simply a wonderful movie, a pure joy to watch and easily the most fun film of the year. It's not for everyone, sad to say, but my only complaint is that I wish it had been longer. The art work is fantastic, the cast is perfect, the pace is unequaled (this is a movie that moves). It works as both a homage and as daring vision of a world that could never be. Ebert wrote that it seemed to leap from the
imagination directly on to the screen. I don't particularly like Ebert, but I thought his assessment was perfect. This is a dream of the future of flight, reminiescent at times of Castle in the Sky. If only it had been a hit. Oh, well. See it while you can.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Shrekerman II -- The poverty of contemporary screen writing
The following comments will no doubt be seen as controversial.
Did I like Spiderman II? Yes, I did. Is it better than the original? Indeed, it is. Would I recommend the movie? Of course. So why am I complaining?
Well, I feel bad about complaining. This is after all Spiderman II, not Days of Heaven or Vertigo. The movie probably takes the superhero format about as far as it can go. Indeed, I had some trepidation leaving the theater. How is
Spiderman III possibly going to top this? And yet for all my positive feelings for the film, I confess to being frustrated. Considering the following plot summary for Shrek II:
A humanoid hero, conflicted by self-doubt, has to rescue his sweetheart from the clutches of an incredibly power villain. Not only must he defeat this evil person, but in the meantime the heroine must free herself from the fate worse than death -- marriage to a perfectly decent white guy. In short, the overall plot of
Spiderman II and Shrek II are same.
I wonder if I was the only person who was bothered by the abominable way that Mary Jane treated her fiance (who had done absolutely nothing wrong to her -- perhaps the role should have been given to Britney Spears.) In a movie that
struggled to be sincere in its depiction of emotions (unlike Shrek which was
admittedly a farce) this left a nasty aftertaste. The movie cannot have it both ways: i.e. it cannot say when confronted by this and other problems, that it is only a comic book movie, while being praised for the rigorous care it gives its characters as a true drama.
This may be reflected in the complaints by others as well about much of the
character interaction seems to go nowhere. The action scenes between Doc Oc
and Peter Parker (might as well call him that because by the end of the movie everyone in NY knows his identity) are thrilling, but we really don't know what drives the man to his ultra-violent and all consuming life of crime. We have hints, but that is it. Aunt May apperas to forgive him, but does she? And why, other than the need for a hero stuff.
I praise the movie for its ambitions and its technical achievements. It has raised the bar substantially, and that is a good thing. But at the end, I felt
uncomfortable and wishing the screenwriters had the courage to go into a
completely a different direction. Part of me wishes, in fact, that the movie had ended in the delightful (to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head")
romantic interlude where Peter seems to get a grip on his life as a regular guy.
And this is why I am not a rich Hollywood Producer. :P
I liked it more than I thought I would. It won me over.
This is a hard film to judge and from many of the comments and reviews I have read I know I am not alone. I went into the movie on a lark, expecting I probably would not like it. Some of the lines are bad and they could have been easily corrected. Bloom is miscast, though I do not think he does that bad of job. Pitt always surprises me -- I expected not to like him or take him seriously, yet I was impressed. As far as the story, yes a lot of little things are wrong, but I think they got the big things right. So powerful is the myth that it comes across effortlessly (everything seems to be scaled up from Homer by a factor of 10.) The pacing is solid, the action sequences are superb, and Bana, what can one say? Almost
steals the show, he does, no mean feat given the actors he is up against. As of this movie, he is a major star. And Diane Kruger as Helen is just gorgeous. In the words of one critic, she
might not have launched a thousand ships, but easily a few hundred. In short, the film works. I can understand why some people didn't like it, but on the whole I definitely think it is worth a look. You might be pleasantly surprised.
T3 may be unnecessary, but it works.
This film avoids all the mistakes of the Matrix: Reloaded. It's brisk,
the action purposeful, humorous when it needs to be, smart and
well-written. There is also none of the Matrix oddness (e.g. when
John Connor makes a rousing speech, it isn't followed by the
Terminator doing some weird dance number). But what really swayed me over to the movie's side, was the
wonderfully downbeat ending. It took guts to do this and everyone
involved in the film's making should be applauded for their
courage. The late Gene Siskel said that one of the biggest
problems with contemporary American movies were the endings:
writers and directors no longer knew how to end them. This movie
ends right. Well done.
Silent Running (1972)
An amazing, wonderful film
I remember first seeing this film on television I think in 1973 and being mesmerized by it. Even though I found the the premise to be absurd (more on that below), the story and movie triumphs regardless. This is flim making at its most brilliant. With the exception of Terrence Malick's "Badlands," I cannot think of a finer directorial debut. It is one of the tragedies of contemporary cinema, that Douglas Trumbull could not find any work as a director for years afterwards. What a loss! The studio completely blew it.
The movie. Yes, the premise is incoherent and it has to be dealt with. Sometime in the early years of the next century what is left of America's forests are gathered up and put on space freighters and shipped to . . . Saturn. Why is most unclear. Putting the forest domes in orbit around earth would have made perfect sense. Moreover, the film goes to great lengths to show that the robots are fully capable of tending to them alone so the whole bit about the unhappy human crew is unnecessary. But off to Saturn we go (where the light for the plants -- surprise -- is really bad).
I understand that Trumbull was thinking of an alien contact story initially -- I am certain to be going out on a limb on this one -- which seemed to bear some resemblence to the Poul Anderson novella "Southern Cross." The aliens were soon dumped, however. What remained turned out to be an utterly compelling psychological drama of a man alone in space that is unlike any SF movie I have seen (it does bear some similarity to a few Twilight Zone episodes, however).
This is an astonishing technical achievement in movie making. Everything about this film works: music, effects, photography, sets, acting, editing, direction, you name it. Folks, this was done for all of one million dollars and is a hundred times more compelling than films that cost a hundred times as much. This is art. This is literature. Get the DVD. Just sit down an watch it. This is a lovely, timeless, piece of work.
Then weep because they don't make 'em like this anymore. .
The Gypsy Moths (1969)
Fascinating, if flawed film
Yes, the movie does miss greatness. But it is far from a failure. As a slice of American with fascinating characters (yes, I like and cared about them), this film is worth seeing. True, there are problems. The husband in particular comes off as emotionally dead, yet I have known of men like that. The wife (Deborah Kerr) comes off almost as hopeless; worse, it is never clear what she wants or what is driving her. Yet, here again I have known marriages like this. I suspect modern viewers will want to be shown the underly rage and desperation of these characters, which has to be present, but like Days of Heaven, they are muted. No doubt, It would have helped if the film had been longer. Nevertheless, it works with great photography and stunt work and is well worth a look. BTW for those who are interested (this is an R-Rated movie after all) even at 48 years, Deborah Kerr looks great nude. I know if I had been the husband in the movie, I sure would have kept trying.
Amber Waves (1980)
Incredibly lame and stupid rip-off of "Days of Heaven"
This movie is an insult to the viewer at every conceivable level. It is an abomination of junk writing, brain-dead story, wretched casting and mind-numbing pointlessness. I watched this film in sheer horror. There was nothing of any value on the screen. I had a better time watching "The Swarm." Every moment was false. It was as if someone had taken one of the greatest movies ever made, Days of Heaven, shoved it in a blender and then threw the results in my face. Wait a minute. It wasn't "as if," it was. Everyone associated with this picture should be ashamed to the depths of their being. They should have been blacklisted, fined, and never permitted to work in movies again. Alas, I have read many critics who ooh and aah over the rubbish and I guess in that way reveal they never saw a movie they didn't like. People this is a plea: watch Days of Heaven instead. Know the difference between art and dreck.