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I love Godard--SPOILERS
23 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
What I love about Jean-Luc Godard is that he is honest, smart, and has no humility. He has no fear of taking chances, even when it is obvious that those chances won't work out. This causes each film he to be makes exciting, visceral, and ruthlessly demanding, even when they don't come together in the end. Pierre le Fou does come together in the end-even if it goes everywhere and nowhere before it does. The film stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Pierre, a man who is getting tired of his drab life in a snooty upper-class society. Pierre meets Marianne (Anna Karina), who is being chased by hit men from Algeria. They hit the road together and travel from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout all of this we get to meet Sam Fuller, who discusses a movie he is working on, we see some Godardishly over-the-top parodying of gung-ho Americana, we get some chapter introductions (they all say 'next chapter', suggesting that Marianne and Pierre live in such an erratic world that all that matters is what happens next, not what has happened before), and more and more blatant acknowledgements that we are watching a movie ('Who are you talking to?' 'The audience.' 'Oh.'). I love the genre-existentialist way that Pierre (and Godard) accepts that he will have his inevitable grand death scene and learns to take advantage of his life on the way. Belmondo is good playing a grubbier version of his character in Breathless; Karina is memorable as well. However, despite the film's wonders, I can't say that I felt the punch of wild intensity that I felt watching all of the other Godard films. I could see it up on the screen, but I couldn't feel it in my bones.
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Jackie Brown (1997)
QT's Best--SPOILERS
23 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's opera. Most critics and audiences were disappointed by the film, expecting another one of QT's bloodbath exercises.

I can't understand how a clever, empty style-fest like Pulp Fiction could've been praised as a masterpiece while others are actually disappointed to see that Tarantino has decided to slow down and focus on his characters. Here we have the same play on old 70's gangster clichés as in Pulp and Reservoir Dogs. However, it is done with depth (which critics didn't notice), flow (which bored critics), and refinement (which really made critics mad). I'm sad to say that those who are expecting Pam Grier to whip out a shotgun and preach the Bible will be disappointed. Here we have a story about what happens to gangsters in their old age, when they get worn out by an intense profession. That's not all it is about; each character in the ensemble has his own story. Grier, as Jackie Brown, is scared about the future, with a lousy job as an airline stewardess and a drug charge hanging over her head; she is also getting old and fears that her 'foxy brown' image might be wearing thin. Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) is a gun dealer who wants to retire, but is such a megalomaniac that few of his friends actually trust him; the odds of him ever being able to comfortably settle down are slim to none. He is also concerned about his partner, Louis (Robert De Niro), who just got out of the joint and seems to have lost the street-smarts (and even the regular smarts) that he had before he went away. Bridget Fonda is Melanie, Ordell's mistress of sorts, whose life has slowed down; she spends her time doing drugs, watching TV, and scheming against Ordell. Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is a by-the-book bail bondsman who is fifty-six years old and is thinking about getting into a scheme with Jackie.

The only main character without too much depth is Ray Nicolette (played by Michael Keaton, who plays the same character in Steven Soderbergh's dazzling Out of Sight); Michael Keaton plays him memorably though. Grier gives a triumphantly good performance, blending her 70's funky (albeit tacky) style and wonderful charisma with great classic melodrama. Robert Forster is just as good in a subtler and more poignant performance; what is most likable about his character is that the two main reasons he starts thinking about scheming against Ordell with Jackie is that (a.) he loves her and (b.) he wants to get his young genre-cool back. Samuel L. Jackson drops his flashiness-for-the-sake-of-flashiness from Pulp Fiction and plays a sad, lonely man in a world filled with friends who hate his guts. He wants to trick everyone into thinking that he is Jules, from Pulp, and tries to justify his life in front of others. But, in the end, he is a toothless rat, threatening others in a feeble and desperate tone of voice.

De Niro and Fonda are both funny in a relationship that turns for the worse and ends in a way that reminds us how fickle a life the crook can lead, one where relationships can shift on the whim of one's viscera. Spike Lee and others were infuriated by Tarantino's constant use of the n-word in the film, mostly by Samuel L. Jackson. This criticism misses the point of what QT is trying to do: degrade the n-word. The characters use it, and re-use, until it is drained of its terrible power. It is the kind of wonderful liberation that a nihilist like Spike Lee could never understand. Based on Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown is packed with twists and with characters discussing their next betrayal to the extent that we are never sure who is being lied to. But each twist means something to each character, which makes the film great. Tarantino is famous for his dialogue, yet his dialogue is not the kind of clever crook-talk that someone like David Mamet delivers; it is funny without the characters knowing that it is funny (the kind of funny that Elmore Leonard has always loved). Tarantino is really an old-fashioned gangster filmmaker, like Raoul Walsh, who doesn't rely on clever lines as much as casual cheer (such as the scene in Walsh's The Roaring Twenties in which James Cagney stuffs a cigar in someone's mouth). He has a love for cynical movies in a humanistic and joyful way that makes him rise above the filmmakers he loves. He cares about every character in Jackie Brown and is sad when one gets killed.
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Delightful
23 November 2004
Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso starts by announcing that we will have the pleasure of entering the mind of Pablo Picasso, seeing how he gets his creative inspiration; the film promises us that the only way to do this is to watch Picasso's hand. Picasso paints on paper that the ink bleeds through, putting the camera on the other side of Picasso's canvas and watching the a reversed version painting appear in a seemingly magical way. It becomes clear early on that Clouzot is not wholeheartedly trying to show us how Picasso gets his inspiration; that is a mystery. Clouzot wants to capture the joy of painting. That's what makes this film so entertaining: watching bizarre, beautiful images appear out of nowhere. Sometimes Clouzot uses jump-cuts to show us the different phases of a work in progress at a rapid-fire velocity and then reverses the painting in the same jump-cut technique, deconstructing Picasso's. This is all scored to fiery jazz music. We also see Picasso while painting, as his painting is timed. (Picasso has a great screen presence). Clouzot is equally concerned with deconstructing Picasso's work to understand what makes this fast-working artist tick, showing how impossible that task is, and wowing us all the way through. As far as wowing goes, Clouzot did a pretty good job, with scenes that ranged from unforgettable to pleasantly surprising.
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Amores Perros (2000)
A decent movie that could've been much better
23 November 2004
The flaws in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros underscore a major problem in cinema today: the need for complexity and grandeur-not emotional complexity (the only complexity that deserves credit), mind you, just any kind of complexity. The complexity that is most appreciated is plot complexity. A movie with a few characters about issues of every day life is considered an insignificant film by the media. A great film is big: lots of characters, important problems, dozens of interesting locations. How else can you explain why Pulp Fiction-an endlessly complex film in terms of storytelling, but an emotionally empty one-is so hugely popular? How can you explain why a film like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is considered a more relevant commentary on the war in Iraq than Errol Morris's The Fog of War, a much more complex and thoughtful film about when to engage in war? The reason is that Fahrenheit is on such a large scale; look at the ads: 'From the corridors of power to the streets of small-town America to the front lines!'-it sounds big, it sounds important, or more important than an interview with an old ex-politician in one small room. Does this have any bearing on how provocative Fahrenheit is compared to The Fog of War? Of course not. Anyway, the reason that this affects Iñárritu is that he can't simply tell a story about the responsibility it takes to love someone. To make the film more important, he must chop up the plot structure and make it sloppily non-linear. He did the same thing with 21 Grams and it ruined what could've been a good movie. Iñárritu is a talented filmmaker, a humanist with good dramatic taste and some effective stories to tell. Why can't he trust his material? Amores perros would be closer to being great if it wasn't so afraid of being good. The time I had to take piecing together the confusingly nonlinear plot cut into my ability to appreciate the characters.

The film follows an old hit man (Emilio Echevarría) doing one last job, a young man (Gael García) who has fallen in love with his sadistic brother's wife, and a superstar (Goya Toledo) who lost her dog under the floorboards. All three stories are compelling and the major performances are all great-Emilio Echevarría and Gael García Bernal are particularly excellent-and the dreadfully melancholic score by Gustavo Santaolalla is compelling. Also, there is a car chase scene filmed with an intensity, stemming mainly from skilled sound mixing, that is not matched by any other car chase scene. I'd see the film for the raw materials, even if they were chopped up pretty badly.
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Barry Lyndon (1975)
A landmark of Kubrick's career...
23 November 2004
With the telephoto lens freezing the characters to look as if they are in portraits in so many shots, and with the trite dialogue, one might consider Barry Lyndon to be at the peak of Stanley Kubrick's frigid meticulousness, but it isn't. In fact, this film might be considered one of the landmarks of Kubrick's career, his fullest realization of his artistic style. He has been considered unemotional but it is clear in Barry Lyndon that Kubrick is emotional with the same kind of gentlemanly refinement that the main characters of this film posses. He is emotional without flaunting it. He lets his emotions leak out at certain times in the first half of the film. But, when he lets a lot of emotion leak out in the second half of the film, it freezes like ice; he doesn't know how to show emotions to a melodramatic extent which causes the second half of this film to be a tremendous bore. The first half is something special, though. Based on the novel by William Mackepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon follows a young Irishman named Redmond Barry in 18th century Europe as he moves up to the top of the social latter.

The first half of the film has many hand-held shots of battle; pristinely composed shots that milk the telephoto lens expertly become more prevalent within the second half of the film. I'd see the first half of the film for the trite-but-enjoyable performance by Ryan O'Neal and Barry's delightful encounters with galleries of interesting and sometimes touching characters. The only reason not to check out at the 'Intermission' is the skilled performance by Murray Melvin and innovative cinematography by John Alcott, filmed with a lens made by NASA that allowed Kubrick to use natural light with interior shots.
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Ray (I) (2004)
"Taylor Hackford...has never been a storyteller..."
13 November 2004
Taylor Hackford, director of The Devil's Advocate, has never been a storyteller. The scripts he directs are slapped together out of dusty formulas in which a two-year-old could predict what happens in the end. Yet they are always directed with such flabbergasting and elegant grandeur that they seem fresh and alive to the most skeptical movie audiences. Don't get me wrong, Ray, a new movie about singer/musician Ray Charles, is decently written by James L. White, who gives the a few somewhat new elements and portrays Charles with admirable depth and accuracy (without trying to make us forget about the illegal drugs and the marital infidelities), but the story is basically your typical 'rags to riches'/'rise and fall' tale. However, it's a firecracker. The scenes onstage are intense; the scenes offstage are powerful. Hackford cleverly refuses to foreshadow Ray's fall; he has had his rise and we know that the fall will come soon but we simply must sit uncomfortably in our seats, watching Ray walk into his next luxurious mansion (Hackford has a love of majestic sets), terrified that it will all go wrong soon. We see Hackford acknowledging the formulaic plot like he did in The Devil's Advocate, only here it is done with a great director's cunning. I'm sure, by now, you're wondering who plays Ray (if you've been living under a rock). It is Jamie Foxx and he is superb, playing the role with charm and tactful ambiguity. He knows when his character should add some depth and when he should knock us off our feat. We love his smile and his fitfully waving arms, but we feel that there is something empty inside. And Hackford and Foxx work together in the end, to show us where this emptiness comes from and to ask whether or not it really is emptiness. I'd see the movie just for the scenes on stage that are so kinetic that those who are unfamiliar with Charles' music start to love it within (literally) seconds. Of course, some of the credit must go to Mr. Charles himself.
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Unforgettable
8 November 2004
Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves is the kind of film that makes me proud to be a film-goer and exceeds anything I could have possibly expected from the man who made Element of Crime. That film had some clever experimentation (and so does this one) but this film is the kind that's beauty and power echoes in your mind hours after you've watched it. This is a flabbergasting work of art that portrays a woman's quest to please God and does so with the complexity and emotional power of a Bergman film (not to mention the fact that the film portrays a woman's intense suffering in world sternly ruled by men with the power of a Dreyer film). If von Trier made nothing else of any merit for the rest of his career, if all he did was make marginally interesting film experiments, I wouldn't hesitate to call him a great filmmaker on the soul basis of this film. Anyway, you get the picture… The film stars Emily Watson as Bess, a shy and neurotic girl who is filled with joy to be with her new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard who is exceptional). When Jan is paralyzed after an accident at the oilrig he works in, he is in danger of losing his life. He convinces Bess to see other people and Bess wants nothing more than to make him happy and to prove to God that she loves him. After some disastrous complications, Bess is led to believe that she can please God and save Jan's life by having numerous sexual encounters with strangers in town. This sounds like a grungy tale, but von Trier tells it with such humanism and focus on his themes that we never feel like he is rubbing our faces in drear. And Watson is delightful, frightening, and heartbreaking as a woman who will stop at nothing to please those around her. Her one-sided conversations with God (in which she looks up in the air submissively and pleas and then looks down with a deep voice of wrath and scolds) are both funny and sad, not to mention the fact that they reveal seemingly endless amounts of details about who she is. The film is made with a hand-held camera and a visually stunning solarized style. This style does not make the movie; it just adds richness to each scene in the way it gives each face such shadowy texture. In the end, von Trier seems to believe in God but does not believe in the churches that try to codify what he wants. All of this works because of von Trier's passionate desire to understand how one can please God under horrendous terms; the epilogue, that takes the already-great material to a new level and shows how inspired von Trier is, starts with a moment of sad irony and then leaps to the skies with an image that fills the most atheistic person with questions and the more religiously spiritual people with hope. Here is a film that reaches for the stars and makes it there.
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Sideways (2004)
Not bad...
8 November 2004
Sideways works because of Paul Giamatti's magnificently poignant and funny performance, Thomas Haden Church's hilariously dry (though not brilliantly written) performance, and Alexander Payne's blunt humor and humanity. There are moments when Payne misses the mark with his broad humor and makes foolish technical mistakes (like fading out in the middle of an important scene and letting the camera linger on something for too long). But Giamatti is dynamite, as always, and Haden Church is surprisingly great. A conventional story to be sure, but it is a lightly amusing time at the movies with one or two great moments (despite the fact that it is treacherously longer than it needs to be).
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Quirky but mediocre
8 November 2004
Tokyo Godfathers, by Shogo Furuya and Satoshi Kon, is an anime film so content to be mediocre that it is dispiriting to watch. It follows three destitute friends, a man, a transvestite, and a teenage girl, who find a baby on the street and try to take care of it. This alone is cliché and cloying but it only gets worse. The film can't decide if it wants to be melodramatic or realistic and so is filled with scenes of cornballish plot developments and splotched by serious ones (there is scene where a mobster gets shot in the head!). The film is done with too light a touch when it should pound away at the corniness and is too corny when it should earn our respect. So many critics have forgiven the films lukewarm impact for its humanism. I am all for humanism, but I must say that the jarring stereotypes of transvestites (the transvestite character is made to look like freak) make me a little reluctant to praise this humanism critics speak of. I suppose the only real reason to catch this film is its radically weird style, with an awesome chase scene fueled by tacky music that sounds like its from a Sega 'Mario Brothers' game and ending with a shot of a dancing tower.
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A must-see
8 November 2004
Based on Graham Greene's novel, Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American is must-see for anyone who wants to be engaged, delighted, riveted, and haunted. It is a great, conjuring act of melodrama, suspense, and even romance. At a time when any filmmaker can engage us on a purely facile level, Noyce is fair and gentle, cutting no corners. Every dramatic moment is earned gracefully. It follows Michael Caine as Thomas Fowler, a journalist living in Saigon in 1952, when the conflict between America and Vietnam is just beginning. He meets an American (the 'quiet American', that is) named Alden Pyle (Brendan Frasier), an idealistic aid worker, and becomes friends with him. Their relationship becomes more complicated (for the worse) stemming from Pyle falling in love with Fowler's mistress Phuong (Hai Yen) and other revelations that I would have to be deranged to reveal. The film uses this story as a jumping off point and becomes a questioning of America's involvement in Vietnam. While Pyle is representative of America at the beginning of the war, Noyce never tries to be blunt about this; this is a film that can be enjoyed on the level of a human drama if one is oblivious to the political undertones. It can also be enjoyed as an ode to Vietnam, the beautiful country looking all the more beautiful with the help of the lush cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Huu Tuang Nguyen, and Dat Quang. Also more than worth mentioning is the resounding score by Craig Armstrong. Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier both have the quality of being wonderful while making us wonder just why they are so wonderful. There are no powerhouse moments or big dramatic speeches (a scene where Caine starts crying is done realistically rather than artificially dramatically). There are in scenes of interesting and provocative chatter and, in these scenes, Frasier and Caine are true to their characters while being absolutely gripping. By the end of the film, we have been swept off our feat by godlike, grandly small-scale drama. This is a masterpiece and Phillip Noyce, Michael Caine, Brendan Frasier, Hai Yen, Christopher Doyle, Huu Tuang, Dan Quang, and Craig Armstrong are all masters, of style, drama, melodrama, wit, and romance.
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Marvelous
8 November 2004
Steven Spielberg is, ironically, the most unfairly underrated man in Hollywood. There are so many directors that are content to make blatantly unoriginal works but Spielberg is the most original and ethical crowd-pleaser in America. And yet he is considered one of the men who ruined cinema. People complain that his Jaws was so successful that it encouraged producers to make hackwork movies that will undoubtedly make millions (bringing Hollywood cinema to where it is today). First of all, George Lucas's Star Wars is more responsible for this. Secondly, who are we to blame Spielberg for the deeds of the producers/filmmakers who were (superficially) influenced by him? What annoys me even more than this is that so few people realize that his films keep getting better as his career goes on (with the exception of Schindler's List, Amistad, the Jurassic Park movies, and Saving Private Ryan). Jaws is probably his least impressive extremely impressive film he has made. The Color Purple, for example, which was made in the 80s, is one of his best films to date. It is so dripping with complexity and detail; it differs from Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan in the sense that, when you watch it, you don't think, 'Oh this is a movie about the life of an African American family in the early twentieth century.' 'Themes' and 'topics' fade away and the film just becomes…life. It is about people, not historical figures. Danny Glover plays Albert, a nasty man who marries Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). He is furiously disappointed with the fact that he did not get to marry Netti (Akosua Busia), Celie's sister. As a result, he beats Celie and, as a result of that, Celie becomes painfully quiet and unable to smile without putting her hand in front of her mouth. The relationship between Celie and Albert is hard-hitting, melancholic, and funny. Neither character is treated cartoonishly and both actors play their characters with fairness and delicacy. This is not a work of easy melodrama. It makes you think about subjects such as femininity, the black population's quest for independence at the beginning of the new century, and the eruption of violence in a relationship without ever cheating or faltering a single step.
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Monterey Pop (1968)
Exciting
8 November 2004
Without rubbing our face in visual gimmicks like split-screens, Monterey Pop captures the sweaty, bodacious force of a live rock concert-the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Director D.A. Pennebaker does not try too hard to increase the performances' liveliness; why would you try to increase the liveliness of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Mammas and the Poppas, and Simon and Garfunkel? Instead, he films them with a wonderfully gritty photographic style, zooms in to so we can see their perspiring faces, and then lets them do the rest. As for 'defining a generation', the film doesn't do so in the kind of exhaustiveness of Michaek Wadleigh's Woodstock but it does give us a feeling of the life of a sixties radical. If there is one problem with the film, it is Pennebaker's idiotic choice of showing us the confusion as to how the massive audience will be able to be fed. This behind-the-scenes moment shows Pennebaker trying to do what Woodstock did. He shouldn't. He shouldn't let the music stop at all; what is so marvelous about this film is not its ability to capture the feel of a generation through interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, but, rather, through the looks in peoples eyes when the music starts.
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One of Godard's most complex films...
8 November 2004
Jean-Luc Godard is back in his most complex films, In Praise of Love, an exuberant satire of the media's affect on the cold real world. The film's sharp insights come from its self-containment, constantly posing questions as to the methods behind its filmic madness. Godard is one of the most intimidating modern filmmakers; I will have to watch this film again (and again (and again (and again))) before I can have a rich interpretation of it. But, to give you an idea of the first impression I got from the film, it brilliantly questions the mainstream media's attempt to give the cold world we live in a more romanticized appeal. The film starts in black-and-white as we learn about the hardships faced by members of the French resistance during World War 2; this part of the story is told in a dark, dreary way, giving us the real world, stripped of hope or joy. Later on we see some of the first color images in the film: we see a vibrant ocean but the sand is blue and the water is orange (it is a beautiful image…but it is not true to reality). This introduces us to the second part of the film-two years earlier than the first part-in which the characters who will later be in the resistance try to sell a story about their past to some Hollywood producers who will turn it into a glossy potboiler directed by Spielberg. Godard has been criticized for using Spielberg as a target but I would say that he is hardly meant to be a target. Spielberg-at the least in the 70s and 80s-made a dozen film that make the world we live in a more beautiful and innocent place; Godard is honestly trying to figure out whether Spielberg's way of looking at the world is the right way. In the end, however, he disagrees with Spielberg: You can make the world look more magical than it is but, sooner or later, the black-and-white world of sadness will come crashing down-often right after the happy ending. Footnote: As for the complaints about the films anti-Americanism…well, yes, the dialogue in which it is proved that our country has no real name (there are two other united states in America) is a bit silly, but it is simply in some (as far as I can tell) insignificant dialogue between two characters. It isn't as if Godard went out of his way to prove that our country has no name.
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Suspiria (1977)
Merciless
8 November 2004
I first saw Suspiria after someone told me that it was some kind of freaky, livewire must-see camp horror flick. When I saw it, I new that it was much more than that, though I didn't know what. I admired Dario Argento's way of constantly keeping the suspense building without allowing any kind of gory release of the tension-keeping the bomb under the table without letting it go off, as Hitchcock put it in is demonstration of the difference between surprise and suspense. After watching the film a second time, I realized that it doesn't merely keep us on the-it, literally, emotionally tortures us. Argento grabs our hearts with his clawed hand and tightens it, little by little. Of course, his visual style, with cinematography by the experienced Luciano Tovoli, is extraordinary because of its magical, music video richness in color and texture; the music, which was composed by Dargento along with a band called The Goblins, is haunting in its pulsating repetition and the monstrous voices singing along. This style is not window dressing; it makes the movie. The pace is purposely sluggish with so little being revealed until the end. Even the final revelation isn't that satisfying. But Argento doesn't want to satisfy us; he wants to terrorize us. This film is not the conventional, delightfully scary horror film; its designed to make you feel frightened, violated, and depressed. It succeeds flawlessly but do you really want to be terrorized, tortured, frightened, violated, unhappy?
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Elizabeth (1998)
Quite an ending... SPOILERS
30 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
The ending to Elizabeth is shocking and brilliantly ambiguous: The queen (Cate Blanchett), who has been so loving and passionate, is now stone cold (with her face colored white), prepared to rule England with icy force. The scene at first feels tragic, with the new Elizabeth, while the film cuts rapidly to flashbacks of the younger Elizabeth. Then, however, we are then told that for the next forty years she ruled and that England had its Golden Age at that time. So, while the imagery is sad, the outcome is good, and the music is so unbearably annoying that it distracts us as to whether the moment is meant to be glorious or tragic. It's quite a scene. The problem is that if you were to take Elizabeth's icy face, drag her jaw downward, have her pupils point upward, and have her head rotate in circular motion, you would have some idea of the way I looked watching this movie up until the final scene. One can easily see, in retrospect, that the film does in fact believe that Elizabeth's transformation was for the best. How else can one explain why director Shekhar Kapur filmed with film in such an icy, impassionate manner? The film is about as sincere as all of those robotic bows to Queen Elizabeth. Kapur is at his best when he tries to make Elizabeth into a thriller, and I do believe that it might have been better if it were a 90-minute horror show about a queen in turmoil. But Kapur eventually gives up on the film's thriller routes and blindly follows the path of all the other epic directors before him (Richard Attenborough is in the movie!). What do big epic filmmakers get out of their careers? Are we really to believe that they have any blood pumping through their veins? How could anyone ever have gotten any joy out of making this movie? If there is one thing that I can say on the film's behalf, it is that Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Rich Attenbourough, and Joseph Fiennes all do great Oscar-grubbing-excuse me-acting.
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Waking Life (2001)
A Masterpiece--SPOILER
30 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
It is rare that a filmmaker can immerse his audience in an exceedingly unique and gripping atmosphere (the last times this happened was with U-Turn, Element of Crime, and Mystery Train) and it is even rarer that a filmmaker can accomplish something miraculous in such an atmosphere. Richard Linklater's Waking Life is that kind of achievement. It was filmed in Austin with live actors and then the footage was digitally animated on Mac Computers. As a result, each image is wildly alive giving the film a dizzying waviness and vibrancy. Describing the effect of this visual style is impossible but what is quite remarkable is that the film is stylized this way for a reason: It is about a young man (Wiley Wiggins) stuck in a dream world (or some sort of alternate reality) meeting dozens over dozens of people on the city streets. These characters talk and talk about fascinating concepts involving philosophy, sociology, exobiology, and, as the movie progresses and our nameless protagonist realizes that he is in a dream, lucid dreaming (the ability to realize that you are in a dream) is discussed more and more. Wiley Wiggins is one of the most underrated actors (his performance in Dazed and Confused is impossible to forget). It is surprising that he can evoke such a complex character when he is not allowed to have any character development in the story; he gives delicate vibes of social awkwardness, fear, and desperation. His lucid dream soon (I'd hate to use this cliché but) becomes a nightmare from which he is unable to awaken. In the end of the film, as he flies off into the sky, the tone is bittersweet: he may never be able to wake up but what is better than being trapped in one's endless curiosity? That is the point of the film: it is an exquisite ode to curiosity and what happens when a film encourages curiosity? It is slapped as being pretentious, of course. Some obnoxious critics of the film encourage one to read the philosophies that these characters talk about rather than wasting time watching them talk about these philosophies. What these dunces don't realize is that this film is meant to appeal to a mainstream audience (or at least someone who isn't a philosophy major). Linklater does not dumb-down these philosophies; instead they are filtered through slackers with an extreme amount of love for the material that they talk about. (As for the actors, in the tradition of Slacker, most of them are just interesting Austin locals. Linklater has always believed that what counts in movies is personality rather than multifaceted acting technique. While most of the actors are interesting here, a few of them deliver their dialogue in a horridly lifeless tone of voice that was absent in Slacker.) What could be more fun than a journey like this?
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Terrible--SPOILERS
30 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
What a godforsaken waste of a brilliant subject for a documentary! Commenting on the conflict between tradition and modern trends, Lucy Walker's The Devil's Playground is about Amish teenagers who get into drugs, drinking, and hardcore partying. And would you believe me if I told you that it is one of the most gutless and incompetent documentaries I have ever seen? All I can say is, the fear of seeing a movie this terrible ever again brings me one step closer to wanting to join a culture devoid of the presence of the media. This film is so muddled that it randomly examines a handful of characters while cutting to an old Amish man yapping about teenagers and peer pressure; when it gets bored with the old man, it goes back to one of the teenagers and when it gets bored with that teenager, it jumps to another one. There is no sense of emotional flow, pacing, or structure. Lucy Walker can't even engage us moment-by-moment, constantly adding corny music like a documentary-soap-opera. She is so technically incompetent that she goes for a moment of (cheap) emotional impact with a character while a gargantuan locomotive blasts by a hundred feet behind him.

Sometimes the material is engaging despite Walker but that is rare… Oh, and then there's Faron-I can't wait to talk about Faron. Faron is a moronic Amish teenager who is bewildered as to whether he should move back to the family farm and live the Amish or if he should continue living in a trailer and have constant parties. Faron is a drug addict whose life is a mess of small ups and big downs. However, Lucy Walker must be dumber than Faron if she doesn't realize what a mess his life is and treats every up and down like an exciting new story development: Faron is in deep trouble with drug dealers for ratting on his friend and his girlfriend leaves him! (Sad music.) Faron skips town, plans to become Amish again, gets a job working for his father, and gets a new girlfriend! (Happy music.) Faron's girlfriend dumps him, his father fires him, and he moves back into his old trailer and starts getting drunk regularly! (Sad music) Faron goes to find ex-girlfriend to get back together with her and gets a new job! (Happy music) Faron crashes his car on his way to work and loses his job! (Sad music) Faron gets a job as a parking lot attendant and has some vague plans of going back to farm someday! Every single one of these plot revelations is treated melodramatically. And then the film just ends on an up-note (the great parking lot gig) without even considering the possibility that things will go badly later on. What about the guy that Faron ratted on? When he gets out of prison, won't he be angry? All he'll have to do to find out where Faron-the-moron is hiding is to watch The Devil's Playground. But that will prove to be an unbearable task indeed. Footnote: In this mess of a film there is one compelling facet: it is able to explain why a teenager would want to be Amish-an incredibly impressive achievement in the middle of an incredibly horrendous disaster.
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The Scarecrow (1920)
One of Buster Keaton's greatest silent shorts...
30 October 2004
The Scarecrow is one of Buster Keaton's greatest silent shorts. In twenty minutes it catches us up in rapture, filled with cheer, humor, romance good nature, and a true and innocent sense of small town farm life. The film contains some of Keaton's most incredible acrobatics as he runs around on top of a ten-foot brick wall, handstands his way through a river of mud to avoid getting his clothes dirty (he, of course, falls in some mud once he gets to the end of the muddy river), is chased by a dog (the payoff of the chase scene is one of the funniest gags in any silent comedy, a brilliant satire of the way silent clowns insist on creating trouble for themselves), and on and on and on and on. As the film is almost coming to a close, Keaton is about to be married. But the film is not done with us yet; instead of merely watching the couple ride off into the sunset, Keaton boldly follows them to the sunset as the two get married on a speeding motorbike. For twenty minutes, I forgot about the time I wasted watching Go West.
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Secret Ballot (2001)
Mildly entertaining.......
30 October 2004
Films that have new ideas to put on the table are always welcomed. So many filmmakers today feel like the only way they can express their sincere views and emotions is to format these ideas and emotions into a cliché structure. It is good to know, however, that a relatively new filmmaker named Babak Payami can express his thoughts in a story that has never been told before. The film Secret Ballot is a about 'a girl' (Nassim Abdi) who travels through some islands off the coast of Iran with a guide (Cyrus Abidi) meeting random people and marking down their votes for election day. Half the people she meets do not even know who the candidates are; she has to explain their tell them about the candidates for five minutes before they vote. Payami uses the girl's quest for votes as a jumping off point for the greater question of the value of democracy and uses the relationship between the girl and the guide as a jumping off points for questions about feminism in Iran. The commentary on feminism is funny and so are the scenes where the girl is collecting random peoples' votes but to use such a terrible voting system as a way to question the value of democracy is a bit like using the characters from Lord of the Flies as a way of questioning the value of children-the excellent story in this film really doesn't make up for the phony message. I'm unimpressed by Payami's terribly indulgent visual style; if a film is going to have self-indulgent visuals, their should at least be something to indulge in, but I can't say that this is the case for Payami's images. This is the kind of mildly entertaining film that might be not be worth seeing at the movie theatre, but, if you're bored, you could catch on television one day (billions of years from now when they decide to put Iranian films on television.)
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Enchanting
30 October 2004
The White Dove, by Frantisek Vlacil is a film that deserves to be remembered in spite of its occasional sloppiness. It is about a young boy (Karel Smyczek) and his quest for his freedom and his identity. Here we have a triumph of images rather than of acting or story. The visual metaphors are blunt, but they are beautiful, so who cares? We have a head made of clay that has its face ripped off (the loss of one's identity), we have fingerprints that grow into flowers (the delicacy of identity), we have our main character climbing to the top of the fence surrounding his school, escaping his vicious classmates (the struggle for freedom). The Four Hundred Blows may be wonderful, but its many plot device characters take away the film's riveting effect after many viewings; The White Dove's purely emotional rapture takes the long road around conventional plot clichés and finds a place in a quiet little corner of our hearts.
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No Man's Land (I) (2001)
Certainly original...
24 October 2004
Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land is a particularly deep film. It takes some jabs at the UN's refusal to help Bosnian and Serb troops caught in some trenches in no man's land during the war between the two countries; the film also criticizes the story-hungry leeches that are the media. This is all done in an ultra-cartoonish style, making a UN superior (Simon Callow) a snobby fat-cat, making the soldiers in no man's land (Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, and Filip Sovagovich) tough wisecrackers, and making a reporter on the scene your typical sleazebag. The film succeeds in criticizing UN's decisions but the film's criticisms of the media are weak. However, the main reason to see this film is its stunning recreation (and reinterpretation) of the atmosphere of a battlefield. No, the film is not shot in some documentary style with blood splashed all over the lens and guts draped on every shrub; the film is made on an open field on a sunny day. As the second scene begins, we think we are about to see a pleasant experience-that is, until soldiers covered in blood enter the cheery atmosphere. This reminds me of the scene in Alain Resnais's Night and Fog, where the Narrator points out that the most innocent looking areas can be near a death camp. Why does every war film have to make us feel like we are in the Seventh Circle of Hell? Tanovic carries the story along creatively, swiftly coming up with intense and exiting situations. And the film is worth seeing for the sake of the final shot, which is jaw-dropping.
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10/10
A flabbergastingly remarkable movie that is ingrained in my memory
24 October 2004
Dazed and Confused has the kind of glee and convictions that only a film that strikes an extremely strong cord with a specific group of people (a cult classic) can have. It has incredible scope that brings out certain themes that are all loosely connected to one and other by simple truths of teenage life (and of life in the 70's). The characters-most of them-have little depth but are undeniably touching and funny. A lot of the film is just out to have fun, filled with silly pranks and car chase scenes. There are also times when the film seems to be treading water. Yet this is undeniably one of the best comedies of the nineties because of its wit, fabulous performances, innocence, and good nature (the last two attributes are nearly impossible to find in modern comedies). There aren't any characters that cream of the crop director Richard Linklater seems to have any hatefulness toward-even the nasty ones. The characters are memorable in their own two-dimensional way thanks to performances by Adam Goldberg, Michelle Burke, Matthew McConaughey, Sasha Jenson, and Joey Lauren Adams-just to name a few; when all of these characters work together they create a real high school environment (though an exaggerated one). The finest performance comes, surprisingly, from young Wiley Wiggins as a nervous junior high school student going into high school; he packs a stronger emotional punch than any other character in the movie and the fact that he overacts at one point and still keeps his screen charisma is a testament to his endearing presence; without his contribution, this film would probably be just a little bit better than your average wild party movie. Here Linklater proves that he can make a relatively mainstream movie without losing his convictions as an artist as he criticizes our schools' way of making students prepare so much for their future that they forget about the present. Also worth noting: the film has an incredible, gritty visual style by Lee Daniel.
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Go West (1925)
A let-down to say the least
24 October 2004
I suppose Go West is an uplifting story-a young, goodhearted working man makes a living in the west-and I like the comparison between city and country life, but there is no heart in this film. It is stiff and cold. Even Buster Keaton himself (as the cowboy) lacks his earnestness and lack of confidence. Or maybe he doesn't-it's hard to tell since we rarely get to see clear shots of his face. This is a shame since what makes Keaton so good is not his visual grace so much as his nervous facial expressions while pulling off his stunts. Here we have action but no reaction. Even the action isn't very good; the only scene of real physical mastery is one where Keaton is tumbling around in a boxcar full of barrels; once again, the scene stinks because we never get to see his face. Even the attempt at adding a romance to the film is downright awful because it feels stapled on. One somewhat funny scene involves a crazed gunman trying to get Keaton to smile (you can imagine how reluctant he is) but the scene is a blatantly annoying wink to Keaton's persona and feels like a commercial for Keaton's work rather than a good old-fashion silent comedy riff. Buster Keaton is one my favorite comedians (probably my favorite silent comedian) but he has a handful of incomprehensibly popular trash such as Steamboat Bill Jr., Seven Chances, and-I would hate to have to add it too the list but-Go West.
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Extraordinary Movie-making
24 October 2004
Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven is such an extraordinary work of movie-making that it is in a realm of movies that are able to connect with anyone who remembers (or is amidst) their childhood, regardless of what country they come from. (Note: Films that have a universal appeal aren't necessarily better than films that only appeal to people from one or two countries, but making a film with a universal appeal is no easy task.) A boy named Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) loses his sister Zahra's ((Bahare Seddiqi) running shoes; Zahra threatens to tell their father (Mohammad Amir Naji). Petrified at his father's temper, Ali promises his sister that he will get his sister some new shoes as soon as possible. In the meantime, the two work out a tight shoe-switching schedule. The plot is inventive and provides some decent chuckles-good writing and comic timing. Hashemian is likable and relatable though he milks the babyish whimpering to an annoying extent. Naji is able to give us a stronger feeling that we are watching a real person on screen than any of the other actors in the film. It is not until the last ten minutes of the film, however, that we are swept up in a crazy whirlwind of emotion, jolting from despair to joy to suspense (though not in that order) and the last ten minutes can make a movie great. Majidi gives us homage to The Four Hundred Blows. The ending to Majidi's movie is somewhat similar to that of Francois Truffaut's; both movies contain the feeling of extreme desperation, but Ali has a goal in his life while Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is boldly going nowhere. Truffaut's film concludes with brilliant ambiguity, leaving us wondering whether Doinel's last five minutes on screen were triumphant or pathetic; Majidi does something quite similar (less ambitiously) in a way I would not dream of revealing.
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Bloody Sunday (2002)
Gripping
24 October 2004
Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday is an exiting new film that deserves much attention for its full-throttle evocation of the milieu of 'Bloody Sunday', in which Irish citizens in a peaceful protest for independence from Britain were killed by British troops. The film doesn't raise any controversial questions-it is a simple criticism of the way the troops acted-but I was fully immersed by Greengrass's stunning, semi-documentary style and James Nesbitt's passionate and nuanced performance as the leader of the protest. Any director who works with Nesbitt in the future is striking gold; few actors can have subtlety as well as power-that is something only the greats are blessed with. Editor Clare Douglas makes a major mistake: the constant scenes in the British troops headquarters are unnecessary and interfere with the films gripping pace. But the jump cuts are done well and the no-nonsense fade-out/fade-in style gets us right to the meat of the picture.

Paul Greengrass is a muscular filmmaker with a highly personal style but I am worried that he may be on the verge of becoming a hype artist. The next film he got under his belt after this one was the awfully indulgent The Bourne Supremacy. The fact that he has made several films (some for TV) that criticize the British government makes me think he has convictions as a filmmaker; he isn't a style-crazy fool. I just hope that he makes the right choices… Footnote: Bloody Sunday has been criticized as being an anti-British film; this is almost as absurd as saying that The Murder of Emmett Till is an anti-white film or that Schindler's List is an anti-German film. I just hope that the anti-British fools who keep running their mouths off don't continue to be thought as being in cahoots with Paul Greengrass.
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