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Moderately entertaining comedy--a bit unsatisfying
This is a classic, very clean American rom-com, full of all the fairytale trappings of the genre, but also missing the anarchic undercurrent that makes for the best films in that tradition. It's a fairly amusing hour and a half, but not much else.
Part of the problem stems from Will Smith's status as producer on this film. He seems completely unwilling to get his feet wet. Until the last ten minutes, you'll see none of the zany-sexy energy that made his work in Fresh Prince show compelling. Instead, you get the cloying, metro sexual, sleazy-charming Will Smith.
This could have been funny if the film had given more opportunities for the Hitch character to trip in a pile of his own BS. But 90% of the film treats his womanizing posturings with complete sincerity, undermining the comic possibilities. The erotic tension, battles for sexual dominance, and love-hate fireworks that make for the best rom-com pairings are startlingly absent between Smith and Eva Mendes. It's as if Smith the producer tried too hard to reign in Smith the comedian, and undermined countless laughs because of it.
Kevin James fares much better in the role of a schlubby accountant trying to win the heart of his heiress client. Surprisingly, his impeccable timing translates even better to the big screen than the small. It's telling that his Smith's chemistry with James is much stronger than with Mendes--he seems to be the only scene partner where Smith wants to let loose.
For some reason, all the wackiness that was lacking for almost all of this film seems awkwardly crammed into the last ten minutes. The result is an embarrassingly executed finale. Smith's desperate attempt to win Mendes' heart, which is supposed to be Hitch's most heartfelt moment, feels utterly insincere after the romantic iceberg of the past 90 minutes.
The War Zone (1999)
One of the best of the 90's
Strange, opaque and deeply unsettling, the War Zone is the only way a film about a topic as horrifying as incest should be. Tim Roth, realizing that the family of the film is too far gone to elicit much empathy from the audience, simply tries to convey the story as truthfully as possible. With crushing results.
At the beginning of the film, we're introduced to a nameless clan: a genial father (Ray Winstone), a mother exhausted from recently giving birth (Tilda Swinton), a sullen teenage boy (Freddie Cunliffe), and his strikingly beautiful older sister (Lara Belmont). All four have recently moved from London to the remote, seaside village of Devon, leaving the two kids feeling isolated and adrift.
What follows for the next hour or so is a brilliantly confusing experience--Roth presents a series of odd quirks about the family that makes the audience question what is merely eccentricity and what hints at something darker. Why, for example, does the family walk around naked most of the time? Don't those siblings seem slightly too "affectionate" given that they're teenagers? What exactly does the boy see his father doing with his sister in the bathroom that bothers him so? All of this mystery leads up to an absolutely harrowing scene which leaves no mystery as to the dynamic between father and daughter. More emotionally explicit than physically so, the scene is rightfully regarded as one of cinema's more horrible acts of on-screen violence, yet doesn't feel gratuitous in the slightest.
This film is as sparse as possible, with almost no inflection or melodramatic effects. Scenes are generally shot in long takes with a static camera (gorgeously framed in widescreen). There is little excess dialogue, and almost no music. Often we are placed into the middle of confusing scenes that are open to numerous interpretations. We more or less have to come to our own conclusions about what is going on. The teenagers are as inexpressive and introspective as teenagers in real life, which makes there unexpected emotional outbursts all the more powerful.
Why Roth hasn't made any other films is beyond me. He has a lean, cinematic sensibility which is unmatched by any other actor-director. I hope he gets an opportunity to use it again soon.
Was there a story here?
I left this film feeling high. Not because I literally ingested anything before arriving at the theatre, but because the movie provided that familiar feeling of one's brain being reduced to a muddled receptor for bright colors and funny noises.
So about the story: boy robot leaves his home for the big-city, must defeat evil robot trying to control the robot world. During this epic quest he encounters a series of Disney-ish archetypes, including: wacky robot sidekick (voiced by Robin Williams, natch), bland robot love interest (Halle Berry, spending all of maybe three hours in the recording studio), and a spunky tomboy robot (voiced by some unmemorable tween star).
The storyline, such as it is, could probably fill a single half-hour slot on Nickelodeon. There are a few funny bits of dialogue (provided by off-Broadway scribe David Lindsay Abaire), but mostly the script is just the filler before the next elaborate visual sequence dreamed up by the animators.
And don't get me wrong: those visual sequences are pretty cool. I can't quite decide which is more impressive: the hyperkinetic ride through the immaculately detailed robot city or a complicated sequence involving thousands of dominoes. The art department clearly put a mind-boggling amount of effort into creating a fully realized world.
But that, unfortunately, is all there is. An awesomely rendered environment with nothing in the foreground. Many of the characters, particularly the protagonist, feel like little more than rough outlines. The relationships between characters feel like tacked-on afterthoughts. This is compounded by the most lackluster and non-distinctive voice work I've ever heard from major movie stars (Ewan McGregor and Halle Berry sound so bored, I would have preferred they hire interns from the accounting department).
I recommend this film slightly, simply because of the stunning visuals. But otherwise, with the success of truly subversive CGI films like The Incredibles and Shrek, Robots just doesn't cut it.
Monster's Ball (2001)
Muddled, uneven film redeemed somewhat by Thornton
It's unfortunate that this is one of the only films of the past few years about moder race-relations in the American South, since the majority of recent films about race deal with more with the urban black experience than the unhealed psychic wounds south of the mason-Dixon line. Too bad, then, that all we get is this sloppy, overly schematic piece of liberal claptrap.
Full of wildly contrived plot points, bizarre tonal shifts and cheap melodramatics, this film seems the work of a supremely unassured, confused filmmaker. One might make the case that the odd unpredictability of the film is its chief virtue, but that would be to ignore the gaping story holes and utterly nonsensical character motivations.
A mere description of the plot--in which a black woman falls in love with the white executioner of her husband--should have given any script reader serious pause before giving it the green light, but Forster has enough subtlety to make almost seem like a truthful exploration of race in America. Almost.
Oscar or no, Halle Berry is utterly grating as the main character. Surely I am not the only one who is growing tired of hysterical, one-note cry-fests garnering trophies year after year. I refuse to take any actor seriously who is weeping for more than three minutes in an entire film. Crying should be an actor's absolute last resort--instead it has become the first destination of every Hollywood hack.
The rest of the cast is quite good, a fact which has probably blinded many moviegoers from noticing the sheer silliness of the storyline. Billy Bob Thornton, as always, gives a subtly shaded performance as the ambivalent main character, and he almost justifies the absurdity of the film around him. Peter Boyle is creepy and believable as Thornton's virulently racist father. Heath Ledger probably gives his best performance as Thornton's confused, bitter son.
Most of the time, however, I merely cocked my head at the screen with an internal "Huh?" What's the point of a pair of scenes in which Thornton and his son have sex with a cheap whore? How are we supposed to believe the coincidence which brings Thornton closer to Berry in the first place? What in God's name is the purpose of the much-discussed, wholly unnecessary sex scene in the middle of the film? I suppose the director might answer all of these questions with "because I felt like it." Which would make sense if Forster had a laser-sharp artistic instinct. But he doesn't. This is a perfect example of an artist going out of his way to create something "original" and just making a mess instead.
Fat Actress (2005)
Possibly the worst thing I've ever seen on television
This is one of the most profoundly unfunny comedies I've ever seen. With terrible writing and even worse acting, the show is so braindead that it could easily have been written by a group of hormonal 13-year-old boys. And I mean that in absolute, unflinching sincerity.
To even explain WHY this show is terrible seems redundant. Every single minute of the first episode was utterly appalling. Not to mention mean-spirited, derivative and racist (do you find the mere IDEA that black men like women with large buttocks so riotously funny that it will have you in hysterics for hours on end? Then you will LOVE this show).
I'm still shuddering days later.
Inside Deep Throat (2005)
Interesting subject, glib documentary
Despite its complex topic, this doc is typical of the kind of glossy, Dateline-style film-making that has become standard in the past decade. There are several fascinating strands to this story--the sexual revolution, feminism, organized crime and celebrity culture--but the filmmakers spend little of the film's flimsy 90-minute running time developing any one of these themes into anything cohesive. Instead, we get a fairly rough outline of the events surrounding Deep Throat, with little commentary that we haven't heard before (the standard old players in the political sex debate--Hugh Hefner, Norman Mailer, Erica Jong--are all here in the dull, broken-record non-glory).
The best parts of the film are definitely the interviews with the creative team behind DT, a colorful group of oddballs who mostly now live rather pedestrian middle-class lives. Many of these folks are surprisingly level-headed about the hoopla surrounding their movie, viewing DT as little more than a fun little skin flick they did 30 years ago.
Linda Lovelace, who died three years ago, remains as elusive and unfocused a character by the end of this film as she is at the beginning. We're given almost no reason for her metamorphosis from fun-loving porn goddess to sanctimonious feminist crusader, nor why she just as quickly reverted to the former position in the last years of her life. Given, there's no way to speak for the dead, but the fact that the filmmaker's were given permission to interview Lovelace's daughter and family for the film without delving into this subject is a serious misstep.
Besides being woefully underlong, the film tends to uneasily shift between a completely objective, even scholarly tone, and gently satirical attitude toward the mores of the 1970's. This is partially why one is left feeling uninvolved with the salacious story. The darkest hours of the Deep Throat scandal, particularly the appalling prosecution of actor Harry Reems, often feel sugar-coated by a randy sense of visual humor and (far worse) a musical score with several tracks lifted directly from the Boogie Nights soundtrack.
My rec: read any of the serious works written about the porn industry in the past few years, and wait for this mildly amusing film to come out on DVD.
9 Songs (2004)
I'm not usually the kind of simpleton to say, "What's the point?" but I have to ask it about this meaningless film. In fact, Winterbottom has answered this question, and answered it very stupidly. Basically, "I wanted to make a film with ****ing in it." Yup. That's it. That's pretty much the artistic justification for this movie--****ing. He's not trying to explore some aspect of human behavior. He's not trying to convey any theme or idea--he just wanted to see some people going at it on screen.
Is the purpose to be erotic? If that's the case, the film fails miserably. It is, as somebody put rather bluntly on this site, like "watching two average people shagging." There's simply too much sex and too little real character development for there to be any heat generated in the audience. Outside of some nice little moments in between the sex scenes, there's little distinguishing this from a nature film.
I've already established that Winterbottom was an idiot for making this. But why in God's name did the actors participate? Why would they put so much on the line for a film so utterly trivial? With some other films that explicit sex acts (Intimacy, Last Tango in Paris, In the Realm of the Senses, etc.) there is at least a feeling that the director is using the sex to attempt something monumental. With this film, the director is doing nothing of the sort--he has few ambitions besides making a smutty little trifle of a film.
Want to watch a better movie than this? Find a fairly well-made amateur porn film, pick out some choice scenes from your favorite concert DVD's, and splice the two together with imovie. Probably a lot more entertaining than this piece of junk.
So much effort for so little
How could so much money be spent creating something this joyless? If you like your blockbusters glum, humorless and numbing, then by all means, get in line to see this Gothic mess. All others steer clear.
First of all, this film has the most one-dimensionally pessimistic character in the history of Hollywood movies. Keanu Reeves literally doesn't crack a smile once, from beginning to end. He's not "conflicted." Or "world-weary." He's just a complete sourpuss with no redeeming qualities. He seems to have a vauge contempt for even his leading lady. I mean, there are plenty of "dark" characters in successful studio films (Batman, Sam Malone, even Indiana Jones), but this is ridiculous.
Strangely enough, the film is quite artful, even lovely to look at at times. Great special effects. Some truly excellent supporting performances (particularly Tilda Swinton and the great Peter Stormare as one of the weirdest Satans ever). Some remarkably skilled camera-work, and a truly creepy ambiance. But all of this is in service of creating one of the dullest, most unengaging films ever made.
Ah, well, I guess we have Batman to look forward to.
Sheer brilliance -- on par with Office Space
This film is not merely a stupid stoner comedy (although it is that), it is one of the most brilliant, biting satires of the past decade. The fact that it didn't make critic's top ten best years shows how stupidly people can be influenced by genre prejudices and advertising campaigns.
H&K is a buddy road comedy with two very important differences. Firstly, that the entire road trip takes place in a single night. Secondly, and most brilliantly, the trip never leaves the confines of suburban New Jersey. In fact, the stoned main characters' only quest is to reach the titular fast food joint by daybreak. On the way, they take several detours in pursuit of drugs and sex.
Many of the scenes in the film sound on paper like typically dumb stoner comedy fare (whacky characters, slutty girls, drug-induced dream sequences), but they are all executed with such brilliance that everything seems incredibly fresh.
Also, this is one of the most gleefully, anarchically non-PC films ever made. I won't give too much away, but suffice it to say that the following line is indicative of what you're getting yourself into if you rent this flick (minor spoiler): "Remember the Holocaust? Well, this was the opposite of that." (Regarding a nude Katie Holmes).
Good show, done-to-death topic
This is an unusual show in that, while it is fictional, the actors are actually playing themselves. Which is a little strange, since occasionally they don't portray themselves in a particularly positive light (one actress, for example, sleeps with her acting teacher).
Nevertheless, the show is very well acted and directed. The style is unmistakably Soderbergh--hand-held camera, sound overlapping silent shots, etc. The show incorporates celebrity cameos in a very real, organic way, rather than being jokey about it. Overall, a compelling watch.
Problem is, the subject matter is so old, that I can't imagine this show remaining fresh for more than a season. You mean, the life of an actor is extremely tough and often degrading? I had no idea! Especially because the show takes place in LA, rather than New York. In NY, actors at least do interesting things while their miserable. LA is all about going on auditions for bit parts on second-rate sitcoms, a life which I find so pointless that I have a hard time relating to people trying to "make it" in Hollywood.
Who am I kidding? Like I won't watch it compulsively ...
Halo 2 (2004)
Improvement on the original, but still needs work
Improvements from the first: 1.) Level design: The first Halo was one of the most depressingly repetitive experiences I've ever had in a game. You would go through identical room after identical room, and none of them seemed to have any function outside of the game. In Halo 2, the environments are often rich, interesting and immersing. The best is a huge, beautifully detailed island that you maneuver through about halfway through the game, filled with complex fortresses and military structures.
2.) Combat: in the first game, combat was terribly integrated into the storyline. Battles were repetitive and annoying, and often felt like unnecessary impediments to your mission. Even worse, Halo often felt more like a puzzle game than an action shooter; there often seemed to be a single, precise "solution" that you had to find through trial-and-error for every battle. There's much more pure action in the second game and less insanity-inducing "play for two seconds--die, play for two seconds--die" kind of gameplay.
3.) Less impossible elements: There were many parts of the first game that were almost impossible on Normal mode--it was more or less pure luck that you managed to get through them eventually. These were generally due to 3 factors: ridiculously long reload times, ridiculously long recharge times, and almost nowhere to take cover. In the second game, Bungie has eased all three problems so that the game is much more endurable and fun.
4.) Better vehicle control: 'nuff said.
5.) And perhaps most important of all--BETTER CHECKPOINT FEATURE!!!! In H1, you would literally have to repeat epic twenty-five minute battles because that's not where the next checkpoint was programmed. This infuriating problem has thankfully been fixed in H2.
And now on to what HASN'T been fixed: 1.) Weapons hunting: There's still too much constant searching around for weapons due to limited ammo capacity. Also, while there are plenty of cool weapons in the Halo universe (the shotgun, the Brute Shot, the rocket launcher), most of the time you are stuck with lame weapons like the useless Covenant carbide. Furthermore, why can't I hold more grenades? Grenades are obviously the more important part of combat in both Halo games, yet for some reason I can only hold 8 at a time.
2.) Still WAY too linear. One of my favorite games of all time was Doom 2 for the PC, because each level was a large, sprawling landscape that had to be explored thoroughly before you move on. In H2, you basically make a single bee-line to the end of the level, with no real sense of exploration or freedom of movement.
And on to the new problems: 1.) Most of the new weapons are pretty lame--the carbide (mentioned above) is highly ineffective, as is the brute plasma gun, which you have recharge (literally) every three seconds.
2.) Why are there still so few different kinds of enemies? This always bothered me about the first game, and it bothers me with the second. All the enemies are cut from the same boring, generic sci-fi cloth, with little personality. There are few cool bosses to beat. Just the same moderately difficult drones from start to finish.
3.) Biggest gripe of all: PLAYING AS THE ARBITER IS ANNOYING! First of all, it's a pain trying to discern which aliens are your friends and which are your foes, since they look exactly alike. Secondly, instead of getting a flashlight (which would be very helpful during some of the darker moments in the game), you have a fairly pointless "cloaking" device, which makes you invisible for about two seconds.
All in all, I give it about 8/10.
The Brown Bunny (2003)
Mostly quite good
I can only understand people's aversion to this film if traditional standards of narrative cinema are applied to it. But, as Chloe Sevigny said in an interview, it's more of a "museum piece" than a Hollywood movie, and really should be treated as such.
What was remarkable:
--Much of the traveling footage, especially in the rarely filmed rural East, where Gallo captured the moody magic of the rolling hills and dense forests of states like New Hampshire and Ohio.
--A great, weird, almost silent scene with Cheryl Tiegs that spoke volumes about the main character's pain.
--Gallo's performance during much of the film, which is remarkably sober and truthful.
--The sparse dialogue, which had the self-consciously arty ring of an undergrad NYU student circa 1972.
--The oral sex scene. I understood Gallo's motivations for doing it, but the physical reality of seeing the scene before you eyes is much different that it must have been in the director's head. It supposedly speaks to the characters' sexual and spiritual emptiness, but just comes off as mysoginistic and slightly violent.
Funny Ha Ha (2002)
This is a great film about the God-awful decade known as your 20's, when your adolescent emotions conflict with adult responsibilities. All of the character's seem to be in love with somebody who's not in love with them, and conversely unable to love the person who is. Soooo painfully familiar.
It's also a film about the way that politeness often covers up deep currents of regret and insecurity. The dialogue is littered with the words "sorry" and "thank you," always employed when meant the least.
There is genuine strangeness and unpredicability to the work. When the main character, Marnie, is kissed by a good friend of hers with a girlfriend, she reacts with a remarkable lack of shock or hostility (and even a bit of compliance). Just when we think she may have found a guy who will treat her right, he subtely turns into an immature creep. Instead of the melodrama, we get passive agression (depressing, but much more true-to-life).
The acting, by non-professionals, is uniformly superb. One can only imagine what Bujalski would be capable of with professionals. Hope to see soon.
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Lost my interest after Curtis' death
So, the first half of this film deals primarily with the formation and dissolution of Joy Division, probably one the 3 most important rock bands of the past 25 years. Really interesting stuff--particularly the character of Martin Hannett (played by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis), the psychotic music producer who revolutionized modern music. Also a great performance by the guy who played Ian Curtis--the suicide scene was exceptionally done. All in all, very well acted and directed.
The problem with the second half is that the music just isn't as good. Not that there wasn't great music being created after the end of Joy Division. The script just doesn't seem to want to focus on it. Why, for example, do we get all of two minutes spent talking about New Order, and an entire half-hour section of the film devoted to Happy Mondays? I mean, Happy Mondays was a pretty good band, but there is definitely a reason that you are able to choose Bizarre Love Triange on half the jukeboxes in New York, but will be pretty hard pressed to find a single track from Mondays.
Maybe I just don't like raves.
Angels in America (2003)
Flawed conception, flawless acting
First of all, the acting in this film is superb. Nichols made a brilliant casting decision similar to his legendary decision to cast the very ethnic Dustin Hoffman in the once-Aryan role of Benjamin in The Graduate. Instead of giving filling out the central love triangle of Kushner's piece with movie stars, he chose a trio of relatively unknown stage thesps. All three perform brilliantly--Justin Kirk, in particular, is hands-down the best Pryor I have ever seen--and steal the show from the skilled, but somewhat more pedestrian efforts of big names like Streep, Pacino and Thompson.
Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright (reprising his stage role) are equally amazing. Parker invests Harper with a sexuality and intelligence that I've never seen in the role before--even in a situation in which she seems utterly powerless, she seems to be the one in control. Wright's Belize perfectly captures the flickers of humanity and strength beneath his character's bitchy, fabulous persona.
The problem is that Nichols seems to have invested little time in finding a stylistically consistent way to transfer the fantasy element of Kushner's piece to the screen. The dream sequences, which were in my opinion never the strongest point of the original play, often feel painfully long and dull. Of course, to stage them with elaborate special effects and gigantic set pieces is to completely miss the point. Indeed, this was the one part of the script that should have been significantly edited and reconceived for television. The window dressing style that Nichols has employed robs the more "realistic" part of the film of some of its power and emotional legitimacy.
Which is not to suggest that there aren't some other flaws with the script. The role of Joe, though well played by Patrick Wilson, still feels somewhat underdefined. While I realize this is may be partially deliberate given the character's mental state (he is in the process of "coming out"), his unclear motivation often come off as listlessness rather than confusion.
Pacino, unfortunately, is miscast as Roy Cohn, one of the most over-the-top characters in modern drama. Needless to say, Pacino and flamboyance are not a particularly winning combination, and the one-note performance that results contrasts harshly with the subtelty of Shenkman, Wilson and Kirk (ample evidence that stage actors are not necessarily more over-sized than their screen counterparts).
Despite these problems, there is much to be moved by in this adaptation. Although it doesn't quite work as a coherent whole, its pieces are quite remarkable.
Mystic River (2003)
Deep as an episode of Law & Order
This film isn't moving, its just a regurgitation of old feelings. The acting, writing and directing is all on par with any TV drama. The accents sound like Long Island (Sean Penn comes closest with a dialect that sounds Eastern Connecticut, but it's still a little off). The acting is fine given the material, but the characters are too flat to create fully rounded performances. It's a decent pot-boiler, but hardly a work of art.
I wish that critics recognized that great acting is not about crying, histrionics and prosthetics. I found Penn's performance utterly forgettable and repetitive. It started off and ended on the same note, and everything in between was sleepy, drunk, crying, drunk, sleepy, crying, crying, drunk, violent, sleepy, drunk ... hmm, maybe I forgot p***y.
All the Real Girls (2003)
The fact that this film appeared on very few critics' top ten lists shows just how much mainstream film writers get caught up in idiotic studio oscar buzz. It's strange how a similarly small scale film like Lost in Translation (which I liked) can end up so much more a "masterpiece" simply because it has name stars and a Hollywood marketing campaign.
When I rented this film on DVD after having seen it in the theatre, I was worried that it would lose some of its emotional core when stripped of its breathtaking visuals. Not true. If anything the film is even MORE moving when its aesthetics have been downsized. This is why David Gordon Green is a better filmmaker than Terence Malick, often cited as his primary influence. Where Days of Heaven pretty much falls flat on the small screen, Green's work is always so well executed and unusual that it transcends its own physical beauty.
Much like the film's leading lady, Zooey Deschanel, who is among a wave of young actresses (including Scarlett Johannsen and Maggie Gyllenhaal) who understand how to artistically use and subvert their own attractiveness rather than merely exploit it. Deschanel, who resembles Robin Tunney and Chloe Sevigny but is a much better actor than both, has the relaxed economy of expression of the greatest screen actors, an air of mystery that you can't turn your eyes from. Her reactions are brilliantly unitalicized; there is a moment when she's in a car with Paul Schneider when she seems to be both smiling at him lovingly and crying at the same time. It's one of the most unusual, inadvertantly brilliant things I've ever seen in a film, and Green is a genius to have included a moment like that which most filmmakers would have found confusing to the audience.
Interestingly, though, it is Paul Schneider's performance as the brokenhearted young man that moved me more than anything else in the film. He refuses to eschew his own eccentricities--his odd walk, slightly stuttered speech, and laid back demeanor--and creates a character so real, that you feel every iota of pain and joy he does. He's hardly an experienced actor, but he has a more artistically ambition and committed attitude toward acting than 99% of young actors today.
A great film that will grow greater through the years.