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L'armée des ombres (1969)
Arguably the finest movie ever made about the French resistance. (The only other film I think ranks with it is the documentary THE SORROW AND THE PITY.) Here it's reimagined in typically Melvillian terms as a glum, stark, rewardless battle for survival -- and, in part, something like "a good death". As I'm sure other commenters have said, it's interesting that for the most part we don't see the Nazis, and they're certainly not represented as "Nazis", a group with a certain set of beliefs or motivations. Rather, it's about battle itself: the constant sense of doom, the tawdry needs for killing former friends, the sense that the only real choices are how one dies. People float a lot of existentialist references around, but I wonder if Melville wasn't more influenced by Hemingway, who had much the same sort of philosophy. It's a genuine classic.
Peaceful Warrior (2006)
Hippy-dippy nonsense as an up-and-coming gymnast learns about life and love from a spiritual convenience store clerk, of all things. Will probably please fans of the book -- it feels like a faithful adaptation -- but is closed to anybody who doesn't already like the book. There's not much of a plot, the Nolte-aphorisms sound like they came from Pat Morita in THE KARATE KID, and frankly the whole set up seems absurd to me from the get-go. A movie that pretends to plumb the depths of human experience really ought to deliver something more than "seize the moment". The gymnastics are photographed well, and the movie is occasionally interesting to look at, but that's about it. Silly beyond belief.
The effects are good.
Johnny Depp remains amusing.
Keira Knightley is very beautiful up there on the big screen. I don't think she's well-cast in these big budget action spectaculars, though: she has a modest, quiet kind of talent that is just better served by costume dramas and romantic comedies and the like. Too much of the time she just feels drowned out by the action. And also, frankly, no offense to the girl power contingent, but who wants to see her in guy's clothes fighting? I fully agree with Sparrow: she should be in a dress or nothing at all.
Orlando Bloom is a stick. I keep forgetting he's even in the thing.
The movie more generally suffers from being fundamentally misconceived. Did anyone really care about Bloom's father issues? Or Ms. Knightley, torn between the two men in her life and then burdened with a third potential love interest? No, of course not. We all wanted to see the same damn movie as the first one, but this time with Depp as the star. Well, he's not exactly in a supporting role here -- this is more of an ensemble piece -- but he has to share a little too much screen time with everyone else, because this is a straight up continuation of the story. Like we care. This is especially a problem in the beginning: the set up is long and craftsmanlike, but it's all in the service of a bad idea, and it just weighs things down.
I also thought the movie just didn't know how to end, until finally it just stops -- while we wait for the sequel, in a pretty ham-handed cliffhanger.
I'll probably see the third, but I'm not optimistic.
Superman Returns (2006)
I liked it a great deal
I'm no fan of the character, who strikes me as fundamentally too powerful to be very interesting. But I have to say this very careful, canny movie doesn't take a false step -- it is a very smart blending of modern CGI, evocations of the much beloved original, generally good acting that conforms to what we expect of the characters while still managing to push things forward, and ideas about what Superman is and means that are surprisingly fresh -- which I think is a very very hard thing to do with a character this old. I liked how the story arises naturally out of the end of SUPERMAN II without a lot of winking and nodding in that area, especially.
I think it manages to succeed on all levels.
The Manitou (1978)
Absurd movie features an evil presence growing out of Susan Strasberg's neck...just sort of because, the presence revealing itself as a nearsighted naked midget, Tony Curtis aging badly in Seventies wear, Burgess Meredith in a stupid cameo, Stella Stevens in an equally bad cameo, and Michael Ansarra as an unconvincing medicine man who clicks a couple of sticks together when he's not talking haughtily about how his ways are better than the white man's. All of this equals INCREDIBLY AWESOME, of course.
The climax features bad special effects, even for this period; Tony Curtis yelling, some kind of Native American version of Cthululu, computer manitous (don't ask) and Susan Strasberg topless. All that's pretty AWESOME as well.
Actually not too bad
Although it's a kind of movie that's more interesting to talk about than actually see, ABBY isn't too bad at all. A blaxploitation knockoff of THE EXORCIST, it rings some interesting changes on the subtext, becoming more a kind of muddled musing on the sexual revolution than anything else. The acting is reasonably good -- Marshall, always fine, is very commanding in the Von Sydow role, and Carol Speed runs a thin edge of hysteria here and there. The best thing in the movie are the scenes of the men shaking their heads, trying to figure out what happened to the sweet wife they thought they knew.
Movie suffers from a low budget, and shows every cheap cent of it. Plus it doesn't even attempt to be scary, which doesn't help. But it's worth seeing for the performances, for the Girdler connection, and for it's status as one of the more thoughtful blaxploitation ripoffs.
Nacho Libre (2006)
Fun, though slight
Jack Black is a friar in a remote Mexican village who deep in heart longs for the glory of the Mexican Wrestling ring. It is what it is -- a very light slapstick comedy -- but what it is ain't too bad at all. Jack Black, firmly upholding the tradition of the Goofy Fat Guy in comedy, mugs for the camera and does a lot of silly things with brio. The theme, such as it is, of not denying your gifts but using them for God, not personal aggrandizement, is an oddly sweet one, and the whole winds up in a cheerful, almost old-fashioned kind of way. Very smart movie-making from a commercial point of view, it threads the gaps between a lot of America's current poles expertly. Recommended, it's hard to know who wouldn't like this, actually.
Chinjeolhan geumjassi (2005)
Superior to OLDBOY
I was hesitant about this, as I didn't like OLDBOY at all. But I think this is a big step up and a much better movie more generally. Unlike the deliberately off-putting OLDBOY I found it much easier to believe in these characters, and care about their plight. Also, while the moral quandaries in OLDBOY were contrived beyond belief, here they're much more seriously presented and mulled over. Suffers from hesitant endings (there's two false endings before the thing actually ends), a needlessly jumbled screenplay, and, essentially, from the fact that the director doesn't really have clear ideas on vengeance himself. A lot of the movie's incoherence comes from the director not really knowing, I think, what he wants to say.
So not a great picture. But pretty damn good, and a much more interesting examination of these themes than OLDBOY.
The Proposition (2005)
There is much that is really standout about this movie, so much so that I'll hesitantly recommend it. Still, this is a deeply flawed movie, and it's frustrating, because it could've/should've been so much better than it turned out to be.
The good parts: it's utterly beautifully shot. In a fine year for cinematography in the movies this is some kind of high point, and is probably recommendable on that basis alone. (It demands to be seen on the big screen.) Production design is amazing -- you can smell the sweat and filth on these characters. The direction is remarkable all around, especially the framing of the shots. And it's impeccably acted up and down the line -- Ray Winstone in particular takes a very contrived character and makes him human and believable. It's a remarkable performance, in it's way, and I'd love to see him get an Oscar nomination for it.
The script is the big problem. It's very weak -- the plot makes no sense, the moments of Solemnity are pompous and cheesily pretentious, and many of these characters don't "exist" so much as they are poetic conceptions, stand-ins for ideas about violence. The movie is predictable in it's twists and very difficult to take seriously -- which is what it so obviously wants to be.
Very reminiscent to my mind of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, another movie where bravura movie-making overwhelms a substandard script.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Disappointing Way to end the Series
Actually, I don't understand why they decided to end this -- it's been profitable and there was a lot of goodwill invested in the characters after the first two. Certainly there's more interest in this than there ever was in, I don't know, an Elektra movie or something.
But as a conclusion this is pretty shoddy. If you know and like the characters you'll like this -- the real pleasure of this series has been the spot-on casting throughout. The movie really rides on that, as well as the accumulated goodwill, because other than that it all feels hurried. Far too much story in far too little space: we see three major characters die, more change their roles drastically, maybe a half-dozen new characters are added on both sides, apocalyptic fights right and left (that don't go on as long as they need to). The whole thing feels really pro forma, like the movie makers weren't interested, ultimately, in it. It's very strange.
There are two sizable story lines here that could've stood on their own as movies; smashing them together does nobody any good.
It still has it's moments: Jackman is still wonderful as Wolverine, I think Berry is more comfortable as Storm. There's a lot of in-jokes for the fans, and even in this denuded state it's not actively awful. But it could've been a lot better -- it just feels depressing, as it stands.
Powerful and Grim
Tells the true story of a volunteer force that tried to head off the depredations of poachers in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Asia. Although not strictly a Hollywood-style Western, this movie undoubtedly has a great many Western motifs, most notably the main characters' uneasy relationship with their environment. (They both seem to derive incalculable strength from it and are literally swamped/swallowed up in it -- the cinematography is superb and this movie demands to be seen on the big screen.
Often quite grim, with various characters meeting bitter and rather unexpected ends. Solid and underplayed throughout, and an interesting look at how China views Tibet. Strongly recommended.
I am no especial fan of the original, but that was at least about something -- God, heroism, sacrifice, fate, salvation. This is about nothing but the event itself; it's just about a boat that capsizes.
In technical terms it's probably better than the original: better effects (although the CGI was a bit too evident here and there), better acted, tighter storyline, better cinematography and editing. These aren't pointless things. But it's all in the service of not much: one wonders why anyone thought anyone would care to see this. In a strange way, this is a very craven, insecure kind of movie, nervously trying to please an imagined audience above everything else. I suspect this is some kind of producer-sponsored project; it has the smell of corporate Hollywood about it.
People who compare this to videogames aren't far off, although the best videogames will stay with you longer than POSEIDON.
Wu ji (2005)
Not So Hot
The issue isn't that the movie is "illogical" -- whatever that's really supposed to mean in the context of a straight-up fantasy. The issue is twofold, one technical, one, more serious, is story-based.
The technical issue is that the CGI is all over the place. Some of it works, some of it -- the opening sequence -- is ridiculously bad. I understand the need for Asian films, especially Chinese films, to utilize the technical innovations of Hollywood the better to serve their audiences and compete with Hollywood product. But it ought to be understood that Hollywood is only now just starting to use CGI effects that don't suck awfully, and they're the ones who created the stuff. (And there's still plenty of bad examples.) Bad CGI effects are just awful, laughable stuff that gives an untoward cartoonish feeling to things that aren't supposed to be cartoonish. I would humbly suggest Asian filmmakers learn from the many many mistakes of Hollywood and be careful with this stuff.
The more serious problem here is that the story is bleary and unfocused. I'm not sure what exactly I was supposed to get out of the scenario, or even who the protagonist really is. One could argue, for instance, that the woman is actually the villainess, that it's her weakness that causes all the problems. The love triangle is kind of shoehorned in here but I'm not sure what the "right" outcome is supposed to be, or even if the movie makers thought there should be a right outcome.
A similar, but superior movie is HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
Although it helps if you like hardboiled stories a lot, as this really is a formally skewed kind of thing -- the tropes of hb fiction transplanted to high school. What's brilliant about it is first that it's done so faithfully, but secondly, and far more importantly (because after all "Veronica Mars" is a fairly faithful transposition), it catches onto a similarity between the doomed romanticism of Chandler and the doomed romanticism of high school more generally, a connection that nobody seems to have really caught before. I think that's just brilliant, frankly.
BRICK has it all: SPOILERS doomed women, dumb but frightening muscle, criminal masterminds, and a PI who takes enough abuse to level the frontline of the Pittsburgh Steelers but still manages to pull off one of those tricky, Hammett inspired quadruple-crosses.
Fantastic script, fine acting, and a wise use of a limited budget. A great movie.
United 93 (2006)
It is difficult for any American alive and aware on 9/11 to look at this movie clearly. I believe some years will need to pass before we can look at this film as an aesthetic piece, a work of art. As it stands, the feelings are still too close to the surface for a lot of us. It's hard to separate what you think of this movie with what you think of the events being portrayed.
I also think that the one sensible critique I've read of this movie, that it essentially lacks a theme, or some kind of perspective, is an accurate one. In a way Greengrass's achievement is tremendous here: he essentially disappears from his own movie. Much of this docudrama feels about a half step up from something like GUNNER'S PALACE, which was essentially a raw footage documentary with a narrator slapped on it. This strategy has ensured that the movie will be acceptable to the greatest possible audience, and that it won't alienate anybody sensible: it's a mirror, essentially, and will reflect back whatever political opinions you bring to the film. But those who question the point of the exercise ask an interesting and worthwhile question.
All of that said, I found this an absolutely riveting movie, often excruciatingly intense and emotionally draining, yet still compelling. Greengrass's camera work is far more suited to this material then his previous action flick, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY -- he is not good at staging action choreography, but is exceptionally gifted at livening up static scenes, especially of people sitting around talking into microphones (much of the movie). A lot of the moral thrust Greengrass brought to SUPREMACY makes more sense here, too -- the one thing the movie does argue for is the obscenity of violence.
I have a number of intensely-felt opinions about 9/11 and this story especially -- I don't think they're really to the point here. I am glad I saw the movie and think Greengrass has done this country a great service by making it, whatever it's successes or failures as an aesthetic piece.
Silent Hill (2006)
A Decent Stylistic Exercise
People who complain about the plot certainly have a point, it makes little sense. But a movie like this is not really about "making sense", it's about delivering trippy imagery. On that basis alone I can recommend this -- while not especially frightening, it's incredibly nifty to look at. If you liked HELLRAISER you'll probably like this.
There are nods to the video game roots but I think they're handled pretty well, with essentially a wink and a smile -- the bit with "memorizing the map" comes to mind.
Only two complaints. First of all, the final reveal of who the bad guys are is disappointing in the extreme, painfully obvious. Ironically, the biggest weakness in SILENT HILL comes when the actual plot kicks into gear, during the only time that the story really become paramount.
More importantly, I think the pacing's off. Again, it's the climax. A movie like this needs a real firework sendoff, a real visual barnburster. I found this disappointing. (The coda is nicely ambiguous, though.) Still, it's worth seeing. Especially if you think you'd like to see it, you probably should. You're already on the movie's wavelength.
Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Narrative games are played throughout here, this is one of those movies where nothing is as it first appears to be. The pretext though is that Josh Hartnett is "Slevin", a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time who gets caught between two rival gangland bosses.
Very similar to THE USUAL SUSPECTS, though that was better plotted and a slyer game all around. Hartnett is a vacuous bowl of suck stuck right in the center of this, a good example of how bad casting can hurt a film. I suppose as an amiable doofus he's okay, but once he has to become effective he's pretty laughable.
Structured clunkily, with the big reveal taking up far too much time (as Hartnett has to actually explain to us the plot -- most of which we've figured out, thank you very much). The script bounces around from the well written to the not-so well written: in general it suffers from a kind of self-regard or self-importance that afflicts a lot of Tarantino imitators. (It's interesting that Tarantino's imitators have never understood Tarantino's light touch.) On the other hand, it's mostly very well acted (outside of Hartnett) and that alone lifts a lot of it. Willis is becoming iconic, Freeman and Kingsley get to chew the scenery enjoyably, Lucy Liu is surprisingly winningly girly (a nice break from her Dragon Queen persona). Nicely cast even in small parts, too, with Stanley Tucci and Danny Aiello is small roles.
I wouldn't search it out, but it's the kind of movie that, if it's playing on cable in a hotel room, you won't feel embarrassed about using it to kill some time.
Strange Days (1995)
Empty Exercise in style
-- Miscast down the line. Ralph Fiennes is convincing as a small time hustler, but a cop? Angela Bassett is a fine actress and convincingly tough, but I didn't buy that this one-time waitress could transform herself into such a formidable fighter, even by the loose standards of this kind of movie. And there was really a time people thought Juliette Lewis was sexy? Really? Strange days indeed.
-- Very lazy plotting, with two separate stories just sort of happening concurrently, with no reason I can understand. They're not really related, except that both feature the same sf device and there's a very casual connection. Still, you could sever that connection completely and still have the same movie.
-- If you can't nab the mystery bad guy in ten seconds after understanding what the story is, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
-- Yet another movie that criticizes voyeuristic tendencies in it's audience, which I've always found to be hypocritical beyond belief, as after all it's in the context of a movie, and movies by their very nature invites voyeuristic participation. The movie is a secret sharer in the very thing it's criticizing.
-- Interesting that the movie got it exactly wrong: for better or worse new communications technology didn't atomize individuals further, it leveled the playground. We're not all voyeuristically living other people's lives; we're all on display with the rise of blogs, webcams and the like. (I'm not saying that's a great thing, necessarily.)
--That doesn't make the movie bad sf; what makes it bad sf is the lack of engagement with the future. There's no real examination of how the device would really change society, or how humans would really react. It merely becomes a kind of extended metaphor for what the movie is reacting against in the world of the Nineties, when it was made. Contrast BLADE RUNNER.
-- Finally, I hate movies where people clunkily describe background and setting and motivations etc. to each other. Very lazy screen writing.
An empty exercise in style.
The Forsaken (2001)
Minor, but watchable
Very similar in conception to the WB TV series "Supernatural", so much so that I wonder if there's some direct influence. Suffers from an annoying hero who does everything stupid in the bank and a faceless sidekick. On the other hand, there's plenty of blood, some gratuitous nudity, and plenty of action. Movie obviously owes a great deal to NEAR DARK and, of all things, JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES, which wasn't that good in itself, but there you are. Carrie Snodgress wanders on screen for about fifteen minutes to liven things up. Movie is often very stupid with all sorts of plot holes, but it's never less than watchable, despite it all. Check it out, just don't expect all that much.
Ball in the House (2001)
Jonathan Tucker is back from a six month rehab stint. His stepdad is angry, is mother is clueless, and he has relatives who (Ms. Jennifer Tilly, doing the 'maneater' variant of her persona) want to kill him for the life insurance policy. Overly earnest low-budgeter is so suffused with trying to be 'important' and 'meaningful' and saying something about addiction that it ceases to be entertaining in any way -- it is, in fact, something of a grind to sit through. Though it certainly means well. Cast is good and crew does the best with it's limited budget, giving everything a fairly good gritty blue-collar vibe. But really, the script signals all it's punches, with everyone speaking in a peculiar "writerly" arch kind of way. And it's positively righteous during the flashbacks at the rehab center -- no one doubts the sincerity of it all, but it just clunks about on screen. Not recommended.
Great throwback to Eighties era horror flicks, with Michael Rooker as the poor guy who gets infected with a slimy alien that quickly turns him into a slimy alien, and Fillon basically doing his SERENITY part as a sheriff who has to fight back the invasion. Surprisingly gory, with really great effects. Very sharp script that takes a few easy punches (this is yet another movie showing country folk and drunken redneck gunnuts) but for the most part imbues a lot of very old ideas (beautful woman loving ugly monster, zombie-like creature) with fresh energy. Manages to be oddly touching in a lot of parts, as well -- the characters are more human than you'd expect, given the setup.
Very enjoyable. Not the instant classic SHAUN OF THE DEAD was, but horror fans in particular should love this.
Dalkomhan insaeng (2005)
One of the greatest "heroic bloodshed" movies ever made, with Byung-hun Lee delivering a masterful performance as the emotionally stifled gangland enforcer. The movie in fact is basically a character study of this man, and oddly (and wonderfully) for this genre is often very restrained, despite all the bullets and blood. Many important plot questions are left unanswered, or at best are gently hinted at (a whole story is suggested, for instance, in one character's few hesitant steps away from another). The movie also takes a bleak view of the human condition, seeing it essentially as inescapably tragic. It's wonderful that the relationship which kicks off the plot primarily exists in the protagonist's head, for instance. Also, the climax is deliberately robbed of it's typical cathartic power, which makes it even more powerful, strangely.
All of this makes the movie sound grim, and while it is in spots there's a redeeming sense of playfulness throughout. This is seen both in isolated moments (great bit with Russian gun runners) and in some shot selections, which I think are there just because they look cool. There's a kind of wise and knowing maturity throughout that just left me flabbergasted.
I can't say enough about this movie, which I saw at the 2006 Philly Film Festival. It absolutely blew me away. See this if you can.
Banlieue 13 (2004)
One step away from a classic
Cross between ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and one of Jackie Chan's more acrobatic entries, with our two heroes trying to find and defuse a neutron bomb in a walled-off ghetto outside of Paris. Even more than ESCAPE, this is only nominally sf, a small exaggeration of trends that a look at the news will show are present in France today.
My only complaint is that these guys don't have a sense of pace throughout the whole picture. Things just seem off. A fight with a "big boss" is set up to be a real hum-dinger, but ends far too quick, for instance. Another confrontation is signaled but never happens, which is disappointing. And while the fight sequences are very well done (I especially liked the fight in the underground casino), there's surprisingly not enough of them. There's a whole heck of a lot of flipping around and running about, which is fun to watch but not quite the same thing.
These guys need to watch a few more Shaw Bros. movies, and get a better sense of how to put rhythm into an action movie. But this is entertaining, and worth seeing.
Inside Man (2006)
Enjoyable, though minor
Extremely well-cast, with Clive Owen and Jodie Foster in particular shining here. Has a great sense of NYC's place, with some superb and interesting location shooting. Great soundtrack. Good little bits are sprinkled throughout: the Albanian floozie, the bit about what Grand Central Station really is, the moment with Owen and the kid playing video games.
The spine of this is the caper story, though. It has it's moments: for once I liked the final twist, and it's tightly shot and effectively presented. Unfortunately in the end it seemed to me to be a whole hell of a lot about not much -- the basic plot here could almost be one of those dreadful CBS television movies, complete with a little moralistic ending. And that's a problem, too -- this thing just doesn't know how to end. I counted at least four false endings before it's finally put out of it's misery.
That doesn't make it bad, by any means, and I would really like to see Lee try his hand again at this genre -- I think he has a natural flair for the crime genre. But it does seem to me to be the definition of "work for hire": it's a superb craftsmanlike job on pretty mediocre material, and can only be lifted up so far.
If Lee can find a better script next time, I'd really like to see what he can do.
Thank You for Smoking (2005)
Mainly suffers from the fact that the satire, which might've seemed biting when the novel first appeared in the Nineties, now seems more like a very-slightly-tongue-in-cheek version of reality. Indeed, the movie is oddly sweet, in a lot of ways, and I'm not sure that's exactly what suits the material.
Outside of that this is perfectly diverting, with Mr. Eckhart in particular wonderful as the brave pr lobbyist who suffers trials and career reversals before learning, in a heartwarming conclusion, that it's not so much whether anything he says is true or not, it's more the quality of the bs.