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Cold Mountain (2003)
Worse than you realize
Beware of Spoilers
For the sake of all that is holy, please do not leave the theater convincing yourself that this is a good movie. You've already sold your soul to "Seabiscuit", now let me try to talk you away from the ledge before you plummet into the abyss:
Plot? See the trailer. Simple setup: Gigolo Joe is a Confederate soldier who deserts the smoldering trenches to return to his idyllic paradise hometown, the namesake of the film, where he can find peace and (more importantly) Nicole Kidman. Sounds like one helluva setup, right? Moving a character from A to B allows for all kinds of exciting encounters and the opportunity for hilarity to ensue.
The first major flaw of this movie lies in an obvious place: the two lead actors. Jude Law is unoffensive in this role, but nowhere near remarkable. On the other hand, Nicole Kidman is simply not right for her part. There wasn't a single moment in this movie where I could tolerate her. Actually, have her exchange roles with Natalie Portman and you have the makings of Hollywood "magic".
Why do I have a problem with our two star-crossed lovers? Because I never care about them. Not once did I feel any tangible connection to their "love". They barely knew each other when he went off to war: they had shared a few words and a single session of passionate necking. And this isnt a vendetta I have against Kidman, she made me care about the romance in "Moulin Rouge!", its just paper thin at it is. "Oh, but even though they knew each other only briefly, they loved one another". Fine, but don't just tell me this, convince me.
Now for the duplicitous dilemma at the core of this mess: the movie tries to be a mix of "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "The Matrix:Reloaded"...what do you get when mixing elements from a great movie and an awful one (in that order)? A mediocre movie leaning heavily towards travesty.
Why "O Brother"? It is a journey full of ambiguous and yet blatant "Odyssey" references that attempts Coen-caliber humor. "Reloaded"? Because of the spiel that the Yoda lady goes on about everything having a predestined purpose, a special providence. So I'm supposed to be moved that Sky Captain's purpose was to return to his beloved, plant his seed, and die in the act of cleansing his town? How profound.
Actually it could've all been profound, but the filmmakers decided it would be better to spend time with Kidman and Zellwegger learning how to plant corn than focus on the one character that I could've actually given a damn about: Cold Mountain. Minghella would've been would've been wise to have better established the corruption of Cold Mountain by Teague and his posse after most of the men leave for war. Instead this corruption and its physical effect on the town is only hinted at, and Teague's band of misfits become static foes on the prowl for deserters. In the end it is the town that is saved, not the blossoming love they've been building up. The tragedy I could feel for the is the destruction of immaculate, unadulterated Cold Mountain. Instead I'm told to long for the fulfillment of Joaquin Phoenix's lustful desires.
I hate Renee Zellweger. Her accent is terrible. Phillip Seymour Hoffman isn't anything more than entertaining. Come to think of it, Donald Sutherland gives the best performance of the cast after the Native American fellow and Jack White.
There are many moments in this movie that I enjoy... the sequence with Natalie Portman is one of the strongest and Ethan Suplee is always a plus, but please, please do not convince yourself that this is an acceptable movie by any account: just because something has all the makings of greatness, it doesn't mean it can achieve it.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Full of much, but not quite bloated...
"Kill Bill" has caused a stir among movie fans. It hasn't polarized audiences the way "Matrix:Reloaded" did earlier this year (this is only the first of many comparisons to the Matrix sequel), but this was to be expected: the majority of viewers went in to the movie expecting to love it. This is due in no small part to Quentin Tarantino's ostentatious presentation of his brand name on this film. I thought it was goofy enough for him to have "The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino" on all the trailers, but this phrase replaces the "directed by" credit in the opening credits.
This is nothing new, its fairly well established that Tarantino is an obnoxious, loudmouth who takes his method of assembling films out of pop culture snippets far too seriously. I don't like Quentin Tarantino the man, but try as I might I can't transfer that distaste to his movies. Yes, "Reservoir Dogs" is nothing but Hong Kong heist movies injected with Madonna references and other dialogue and imagery that Tarantino included because he thinks its "cool". But, it is cool. Its a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Then there's his tour de force, "Pulp Fiction" which is the movie that made him a house hold name. The film is clearly still juvenile and immature, but I can't help but love it. "Jackie Brown" is the other end of the spectrum, a film where you can vividly picture Tarantino behind the camera squinting in his effort to make a 'mature' movie. That is, when he's not orgasaming over how genius he is to have cast Robert Deniro in a mostly silent role. Yet "Brown" may be my favorite of the three movies.
From the first announcement of the project, `Kill Bill' was touted as being a grind house tribute, a mishmash of cinematic influences. Tarantino supposedly spent his six year hiatus renewing his love affair with cinema. It was clear that it was going to be something very different from his other movies. I read the first draft of the script that was released online, and had to love it despite the glaring departures from the Tarantino form: the script was very lax on dialogue and strong on action, and by far the most ridiculous and the most fun while taking itself deadly serious. I wanted to see the movie, I was excited to see this samurai sword epic with exaggerated kung fu sound effects and ridiculous decapitations.
The undeniable truth is this: `Kill Bill' is a good movie. Regardless of what your or my opinion is, it's a very well made movie. Even though you're aware that what you're seeing on the screen is ridiculous and outrageous and is an absolute parody.its never presented in that manner. Its all straightforward and executed in a very classy way. A friend who saw the movie with me said that the opening credits sequence went on too long, but I loved every second of it. And as far as the anime sequence is concerned, I thought it was unnecessary but very well done. I can't agree with all the people calling Tarantino a genius and pioneer and true artist for including the sequence..that's exactly what he wants.
A friend who wasn't a big fan of `Kill Bill' complained that Tarantino feels the need to skew the chronology of all of his films just to be different and `cool'. This is wrong. `Reservoir Dogs' makes use of the various flashbacks to tell the story, but that is of little consequence. `Jackie Brown' only time shifts in one scene and that is only because Elmore Leonard made use of the device in his novel. `Pulp Fiction' is the movie most people think of when confronted with Tarantino's time shifting. Is the disjointed timeline in the movie arbitrary? Not at all. If you reedited the film so that it played in chronological order, the emotional impact would be all but erased. The final scene would be Vincent getting shot coming out of the bathroom. You lose the emotional bookends that make the movie what it is. The same goes for `Kill Bill'. The movie wouldn't work if it was in chronological order. I heard plenty of complaints about the seemingly random jumps backwards four years in time. But they are the glue that hold the rest of the paper thin plot together. The fight with Vernita Green would be a yawnfest if it had followed the cinematic wonder that is The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves.
Now the Matrix parallels. The House of Blue Leaves sequence is similar to the Burly Brawl in Reloaded, except for one key element: real people are fighting. It may be an over the top battle, but it never becomes a videogame. Comparing the two fights brings up my favorite aspect of the Blue Leaves fight: the majority of it is presented without music. Matrix obviously suffered from horrendous techno-pop music. Tarantino is well renowned for his musical selections in his film, but he really shines when he knows how to use silence. Also, both Reloaded and `Kill Bill' feature the use of samurai swords. In `Reloaded' the swords are futile, scratching a cheek at their most lethal. In `Kill Bill' limbs are liberally severed from the rest of their bodies and foes are sliced all the way down the middle. Where the Wachowski's wimped out in favor of CGI effects, Tarantino made a balls-to-the-wall action sequence. Finally, `Reloaded' has one of the worst, most laughable cliffhanger endings that I have ever seen. Many people I have spoken too disliked `Kill Bill's ending, but I think that it couldn't have been more perfect. The concluding sequence features the most impressive bouncing back and forth between different time frames that I have seen in recent memory. Instead of ending on a laughable note, it ends on a powerful one, even for me and I knew what was coming.
`Kill Bill' is extremely well executed B-movie schlock. The plot, characters and motivations are all superficial, but Tarantino once again proves to be a master of the frame. The logistical implications behind the movie's many impressive scenes are enough to tide 'film buffs' over, but `Kill Bill' is far from an empty shell.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Tokyo turns in a strong supporting role
If I can say anything definite about this movie, its that it made me want to go to Tokyo.
Its hard not to want to resent Sofia Coppola. She is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, head of a cinematic royal family. She's become this acclaimed director, but one has to be suspect of her talents. Is she successful because of the Coppola brand name? Is what you see on the screen actually the work of friends and family?
I don't want to make a blanket statement about the movie. I can't say that it made a believer out of me. Its an enviably well made film, that held me from its opening image to satisfying conclusion.
Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a Hollywood movie star whose star is fading. He is recieving two million dollars for filming a Japanese whiskey commercial in Tokyo. Also staying at his Tokyo hotel is Charlotte played by Scarlett Johansson. Her husband is a photographer who is in Tokyo to photograph a Japanese rock band. After each being disoriented in this strange environment, they find each other in the Hotel bar. They spend a week or so exploring the city, and elements of human nature. The culture shock they are both experiencing provides the perfect atmosphere in which they can step outside themselves and reexamine their worlds from the outside looking in.
There's not a single thing that irks me about the movie. I can't find anything I want to complain about. A friend of mine complained about the length and pointlessness of the karaoke scene, but I found the whole thing charming. How can you not want to watch Bill Murray singing "More than this"? But the scene has so much more going for it beneath the surface: When Charlotte is singing "Brass in Pocket" by the Pretenders, its not just an excuse to put Scarlett Johansson in a pink wig and belt out a fun song, she's singing an anthem for her character. Its a precursor to a comment that Bob will make later in the film about Charlotte's craving for attention. One could say that the karaoke scene is just a subtle and entertaining way to deliver copious exposition.
"Lost in Translation" is an incredibly well made film that can do nothing but please. Unflinchlingly transient in moving from showcasing Tokyo, to Bob and Charlotte's ambiguous relationship to the Japanese countryside, "Translation" is a pitch perfect view into a whole other world.
American History X (1998)
I used to think that "American History X" was of questionable quality
I used to think that "American History X" was of questionable quality. I first saw it when a friend and I rented it thinking it would be a funny skinhead flick. After that it became somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It never seemed to be too present in the mainstream, not the kind of movie you can bring up in a crowd and invoke an impassioned discussion. After a recent viewing I can positively say that "History" is a very good movie whether you like it or not, due in no small part to Tony Kaye serving double duties as both director and cinematographer.
Through a splintered timeline,"American History X" tells the story of Derek Vinyard (Ed Norton) and his family. Derek is a Disciples of Christ neo-Nazi in Venice Beach, California whose family falls apart starting with the murder of his father in a Compton drug den and climaxing with Derek's violent hate crime and subsequent incarceration. Derek is released from prison to face the state of poverty his family has fallen into and the fact that his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong)is following along the same path as him. Derek immediately sets out to educate his brother on the painful truth of his life in the hopes that he can save Danny from meeting the same fate.
As I said earlier, director Tony Kaye also handled the photography for the picture. Kaye has a remarkable eye, and we are given a multitude of poignant images that, had the film recieved more recognition, would have gone on to be iconic. Visuals that haunt the memory, like Derek's frightening grin when he is being arrested, the neo-Nazi hordes goose stepping around their Venice Beach compound and the Vinyard brothers as infants,playing on the beach. That's just to name a few.
I've often heard the castigating point of view that "History" is throwaway garbage whose only redeeming quality is Edward Norton's inimitable performance. I couldn't disagree with this more. As far as the acting, there are more than strong performances all around: Furlong as Danny convincingly portrays the conflict and confusion in youth; Avery Brooks stands out as the African-American high school principle who stayed with Derek from when he was his pupil through his imprisonment; Stacy Keach plays a man you exemplifies the character you love to hate in Cameron Alexander, the white power entrepreneur who profited from Derek's ruin.
I've even been able to overcome my initial reservations. The basketball scene always struck me as laughable. Its a simple enough scenario: the skinheads challenge the blacks to a game and the outcome will determine who controls the courts. If the blacks lose, they have to leave the courts and never look back. Its a trivial event but the score for the scene is an epic orchestral piece that swells as if the fate of the world were in the balance. I used to think that this was just a bad decision by the director, but now I think the effect is intentional: Kaye doesn't want the audience to take the neo-Nazis seriously. Obviously their cause and consequences are of the utmost seriousness, but Kaye makes sure the viewers always keep their distance before buying into their propaganda. The music reflects the way that the skinheads see the situation: to them, this really is a monumental event. They're probably hearing the epic music in their heads at that moment.
Being a geek, I find it interesting to note the Star Wars parallels present in the film. Derek Vinyard is Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader). Cameron Alexander is Palpatine. Alexander (Palpatine) makes Vinyard (Vader) his apprentice and manipulates him into doing his dirty work for him. This leads the apprentice to commit heinous acts of evil and undergo traumatic physical and psychological changes (Derek transformation and hardships in prison, Anakin's transformation into Vader). In "History", Luke the son becomes Danny the younger brother. Alexander (Palpatine) sets his sights on Danny (Luke) sensing that he would be a powerful ally. Derek (Vader) senses that Danny is going to be exploited and destroyed just as he was, so he rises up and overthrows his former master (Derek assaulting Cameron at the party > Vader killing Palpatine in the second Death Star). Just something to muse over.
"American History X" is a powerful film. I don't know if it will cause a change of heart in those of the racist persuasion, but it presents many discussion points and is guranteed to cause even the most casual film viewer to think about the ideas portrayed long after leaving the theater. Many people find the movie difficult to watch. The road to redemption is not pretty. "American History X" shows the ugly face of ignorance and its many consequences.
Blade Runner (1982)
Epitome of film as an art form
I wasn't even born when "Blade Runner" made its theatrical debut, and for that I consider myself lucky. Had I been alive and theater-going in 1982 I might've become jaded against the film, only acknowledging the muddled 1982 release. I come from a generation whose first experience with "Blade Runner" came on the various home video formats, when we were blessed to behold the 1992 director's cut of the film. The director's cut was the first version I saw, hearing horror stories of the theatrical release. Having seen both now, I can fully appreciate having the directors cut as a definitive version.
Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, also called Blade Runner. Blade runners are insinuated to be elite police units whose job it is to hunt down "replicants", humanoid androids that were built by the Tyrell Corporation to serve humans. After a replicant revolt on an off-world mining colony, replicants are considered threats to society. When they are detected they are destroyed, or as the opening crawl takes pains to emphasize, 'retired'. Deckard is assigned to hunt down 5 replicants who have just escaped from an off-world colony and come to LA. His pursuit of the androids becomes an in depth exploration of what it means to be human, and chiefly why the humans can condemn the replicants for wanting to be like them.
A common complaint I here from critics of "Blade Runner" is that it hasn't aged well. Sadly, this is a truth I have to concede. Audiences new to the feature that go into it without predetermined reverence end up laughing at the Vangelis music, dated vision of the year 2019, and sadly even Rutger Hauer's appearance in the climactic scene.
"Blade Runner" is a beautiful movie, from the opening iconic image of future Los Angeles seemingly ablaze to the scenes of flying cars weaving in between monolithic skyscrapers beneath the perpetually raining sky.
Philosophical overtones are strong throughout every aspect of the film, right down to the art-deco/neo gothic architecture of the city: the Tyrell corporation building is a gargantuan Mayan pyramid that rises about the pollution ridden cloud that cloaks the city of Los Angeles. In fact, the only time you see any sunlight in the movie is when it shares the frame with the Tyrell building. The pyramid shape of the building, the presence in the sunlight above the clouds, and the fact that it houses a creator of life (be that artificial) all convey the presence of a god figure. Indeed Tyrell's role in the movie is that of the god figure. This is unadulterated Nietzsche: god made man, and then man killed god.
Differences between the original version and the director's cut are not subtle, they are glaring. The studio thought that the audience at large would need help in understanding the film, so they had Ford record an irritatingly cheesy Bogart film-noir narration. Legend has it that Ford intentionally made the narration awful in the hopes that the studio would consider it too bad to use. Also, the studio tacked on an uplifting ending in which Deckard and Rachel escape to an idyllic countryside together. One of the most interesting changes however is the "unicorn dream" that Scott fought to include. Its meaning is wide open to interpretation. One possibility is the connection to the title of the Philip Dick story, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Does Deckard's dream of an imaginary creature mean that he is in turn a fictional being? The most obvious connection is to the origami unicorn left on Deckard's doorstep at the end of the film. Does Gaff know Deckard's memories just as Deckard knew Rebecca's? Or is it a coincidence?
Memories are precious to the replicants. Each one has his or her own set of memories programmed in to make them believe they have lived full, human lives. This fact is another of the many clues which led viewers to believe Deckard was in fact a replicant himself. More than that, though, it explains why Roy spares Deckard's life at the end of the film. The cheesy narration in the original release of the film explains it thusly:
"I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want."
This is all fine and dandy if you want to take away the simplistic message that the replicants had become more human than the so called "real humans". The real reasoning behind Roy's grace is much more selfish. Consider the brilliant monologue he gives on the rooftop:
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."
Roy and his fellow off-worlders have 'lived' more than any of the humans living in their urban wasteland. The replicants have been programmed with a short life span. Roy accepts the inevitability of his death and realizes that the only way his memories can survive, the only evidence of his existence, is through Deckard. Roy keeps Deckard alive because the only remaining traces of his life reside in Deckard's mind.
"Blade Runner"'s design may not have been able to withstand the test of time, but its intelligence and message are more than able to transcend the void between the 1980's and this universe.
Joe Somebody (2001)
God Awful, and that aint no joke!
One day a couple of friends and I were milling around my house looking for something to do. We had exhausted my DVD library, when I stumbled upon a Blockbuster previously viewed copy of "Joe Somebody". We figured that it had to provide us with a smorgsaborg of laughs, chuckles and guffaws. When the movie was over we all felt absolutely drained of life, the very ambition to continue moving and breathing having been sucked right out of us.
First of all, the George S. Clinton score is quite something to contemplate. The opening credits sequence that seems to go on for a good fifteen minutes is scored with a monotonous and repetitive piano flourish. Apparently the director felt this little loop of music was applicable to any situation in the movie which leads to the music's gross overuse.
I can't emphasize enough how badly done this movie is. I don't mean this in an ignorant, "this is a pg kids movies, I wont even give it a chance", I mean that every aspect of this movie is ham-handedly done. I have nothing against Tim ALlen or any of his fellow actors in this movie, but as I watch it I can hear the ignorant, dumbassed direction that was given to these people. Obvioulsly a talentless, hack amateur directed this movie, and I feel that I can say this safely without having ever met the guy. Each scene the actors are trying to capture a certain emotional response without any sense of context. It gives the impression that every character is bi-polar. Also, there are several subplots that are introduced throughout the film and just when you think that the movie will do the smart thing and start picking up these threads, they go nowhere.
I can only recommend this movie for the disturbingly surreal scene in which Tim Allen taps his scrotum with a 'squash' rackett, revealing that his balls are literally made of steel.
It's time to put this movie down!
I went in to "Seabiscuit" very optimistic. With nothing else out in theaters other than mindless drivel, "Seabiscuit" was sure to be a well made, fulfilling film. I've never yearned for death more than the three hours "Seabiscuit" held me in it's icy grip. I'm not going to waste finger strength typing out the story of the movie, and thats for a couple of reasons. Number 1: if you've seen the trailer, you already know all you need to: horse is too small, jockey is too big, trainer is too old, and Jeff Bridges is too dumb to know the difference. Number two: trying to find a definite narrative in "Seabiscuit" is like looking for love in all the wrong places. From the get-go, you know the ship is sinking. The movie opens with a 'History Channel' clip about Henry Ford and the automobile. I tried to remain objective, and thought, "Well, I'm sure that this all has a place in the plot." And at first it does, but it goes nowhere. The movie is chock full of these black and white vignettes which inform the audience on such useless tidbits like the fact that nobody commited suicide on the day of the stock market crash, and many families owned a radio. The movie is painfully predictable, all around. Not a single surprise. And I knew the closing monologue word for word before it was said. Honestly. Editing is unbelievably bad, there is a lot of potential to have tension and exciting moments, but all the buildups to the many horse racing scenes are excruciatinly boring. So what about the good? Cinematography is fair, but nothing notable or original. Acting is all good, but such horribly written characters. Everyone speaks in cliched, life affirming one liners that plucked the heart strings of everyone in the theaters to my dismay. Applause after the movie's conclusion. Everybody totally bought into this sentimental monstrosity that was clearly genetically engineered to play with the emotions of audiences. Bottom line? Go see "Seabiscuit", you'll like it. Just dont leave the theater thinking that the movie is anything more than a shameless waste of celluloid made as an Oscar grab, very much akin to 2001's "A Beautiful Mind".
A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995)
Kate Winslet at her hottest!
If you get your kicks from medieval, lesbianic sex than this is not the movie for you. Princess Katey is plenty cute, but this is the hottest you'll see Kate Winslet: when she was young and fresh, before her state of perpetual pregeancy.
Calvin Fuller is your average Californian teen, who just can't catch a break. After another dissapointing baseball game, the Big One hits California. As all the spectators and players run for their lives, Kevin runs back into the dugout to get his backpack. The ground opens up, and Kevin plummets into a neverending hole, retaining miraculous composure considering his situation. He lands in King Arthur's Court and quickly adapts to his new surroundings. Rather than wondering, "Where the hell am I?" his mind is peoccupied with thoughts such as "Who is the Black Knight?", and "Where is the bathroom?" Soon Kevin must contend with evildoers within the kingdom to win the affection of the woman he loves. A hilarious fish out of water movie, "Kid in King Arthur's Court" is well worth your time and all of your money. Run down to your local rental store and 'joust' rent "A Kid in King Arthur's Court", for a 'knight' of medieval fun!