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A wonderful panic attack
For the first time in a long, long time, a film made me feel like a kid again. From the very first (long and glorious) shot of Gravity I was completely lost in the world Cuarón created for me, and for the next ninety minutes I was on the edge of my seat and struggling for breath. It was like a 1.5-hour panic attack - a wonderful, wonderful panic attack. Suspension of disbelief hadn't been so easy for me in years, and part of it was the masterful use of 3D - by far the best I've seen so far - but most of it was thanks to Cuarón's directorial work. This was a perfectly paced thriller, pure cinema at its most condensed, the editing, the sound, the cinematography, the acting all coming perfectly together to keep my eyes glued to the screen (or to the 3D glasses). Leaving the theater, I was stumbling, still not feeling quite at home in normal gravity.
Then I went on the film's board to see people's impressions - and sure enough, it was filled to the brim with complaints about the various scientific inaccuracies and implausibilities in the film. I'm something of a geek myself and plot holes drive me mad. But I just don't get how so many people could hate a film like Gravity so much. Comparisons to Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff seem ridiculous to me; this wasn't about a real space mission, it wasn't about the space program or technology, it was a thriller/adventure focused on atmosphere, character study and a semi-spiritual journey that character goes through in the hostile territory of unfamiliar life. Sure, looking back at it, a lot of it wasn't very realistic, but when a film works on as many levels as Gravity did, I really feel sorry for people focusing on the little flaws - and I'm so happy that for once I didn't.
Drinking Buddies (2013)
Not a comedy
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson work together at a home brewery, they're obviously attracted to each other and right for each other but are stuck on platonic because of their relationships with Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick.
Drinking Buddies is probably the first real mumblecore film to get a real marketing campaign, but it was badly mismarketed as a comedy when it's actually a honest and realistic relationship drama. Acting is good and naturalistic, Kendrick and Johnson are especially good. Not a lot happens but the characters are very real and the situations are easy to relate to, and the cinematography is surprisingly good for this sort of low-budget film.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
Good intentions but it doesn't work
Jason Segel is a 30-year old stoner still living with his mother (Susan Sarandon), who spends the whole film being stalked by her female co-worker at the office; Segel spends the day with his cynical brother Ed Helms whose marriage is falling apart, and looking for his purpose in life.
Segel brings a lot of heart and humanity into his role and he's the film's only saving grace, but Ed Helms seems to not realize that he's in a mumblecore dramedy and not in a Judd Apatow comedy, and at any rate mumblecore with A-list comedians doesn't really work. The script is forced and uninspired and the cinematography and direction are horrible, the camera keeps zooming in and out and makes it almost unwatchable.
Career Opportunities (1991)
A lesser Hughes classic
John Hughes wrote but didn't direct this one, and it shows, Frank Whaley is a slacker and a chronic liar who spends his first night as a night janitor at Target and hooks up with runaway rich girl Jennifer Connelly.
The second act is quite good and has some elements of The Breakfast Club - existential, one-location story about the interaction between very different people. The third act completely misses its mark when the plot is interrupted by two robbers, and it turns into a Home Alone clone and ends on a very unsatisfying note. Connelly is very very good though and Whaley is good too, similar to but more likable than Broderick's Ferris Bueller.
Todo sobre mi madre (1999)
Sensitive and beautiful
After her only son dies in an accident, a single mother (Cecilia Roth) goes searching for the boy's father, a randy transvestite, and falls back into her old group of friends including drag queens, prostitutes and actresses.
There isn't a very strong plot in this follow-up to Carne Tremula, but there's tons of atmosphere and fascinating characters, and everybody acts their hearts out, especially Roth and Antonia San Juan. Penelope Cruz is also good as a social worker with AIDS whom Roth takes under her wing. It's a continuation of the themes of grief, helplessness and fate from Almodovar's 1997 masterpiece but it's much less stylized, more sensitive and character-centered.
Man of Steel (2013)
An interesting but inconsistent reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel definitely better than Superman Returns but there's nothing that different or new here to make it worth the time. This new script places a lot of emphasis on the Krypton story, with a long introduction segment with Russell Crowe who does a solid job as Jor-El, and Michael Shannon who provides a very good and human General Zod.
On the plus side, Henry Cavill is the best Superman since Reeve and he gives the character a lot of humanity as well as charisma; although, the Clark Kent persona doesn't appear until the end, and I'm not sure he can pull that off. Amy Adams, on the other hand, is very vanilla as Lois Lane, bringing none of the character's zest or passion into the role. Since she's already in love with Clark and knows who he is, we don't even have the sexual tension to look forward to in the sequel. The script isn't as flawed as other Nolan films but it's still messy; visually, it looks good but not as stunning as other Snyder films.
Benny & Joon (1993)
A story about two siblings
At the heart of 'Benny & Joon' is the story of Joon, a mentally ill young woman, and her older brother Benny, who takes constant care of her and, while complaining about how much that complicates his life, actually uses the obligation as an excuse for the fact that his own life is going nowhere. It's a story that's simple, realistic and painfully honest. It could have made for a touching little drama if only Chechik made a clean decision that that's what the film is about.
Unfortunately, 'Benny & Joon's biggest asset is also its undoing, and that is the wonderful and charismatic performance of young Johnny Depp. Depp enters the scene almost halfway through as Joon's love interest, the mentally unbalanced but extremely charming Sam who chooses to model his personality (or lack thereof) on silent comedy stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Sam swoops Joon off her feet and disrupts the delicate balance of the siblings' relationship, which forces Benny to face up and decide whether he can let Joon go or not. Depp is terrific in his role; in one extended scene where he showcases his slapstick abilities he proves just how much of a screen personality he was and why he became one of the most bankable movie stars of the 90's. The problem is that he's so charismatic that he can easily fool the audience (and often does) that Sam is a romantic hero rather than a disruptive, chaotic presence; that this is the love story of Joon and Sam, rather than the story of Benny and his coming to terms with his own life decisions. What's worse, Depp's charisma emphasizes just how pale and unimpressive Aidan Quinn is in the role that should have been the lead.
It's not a bad film; it's a pretty and touching little drama, wonderfully scripted. On the other hand, Depp's scenes are a pleasure to behold. But the contrast between the two is what ultimately makes it a failure. It doesn't help that Chechik can't quite make up his mind about how seriously he's taking Joon's mental illness, which is played for laughs a bit too often.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
A formula that works
Friends With Benefits is a genre film and it isn't ashamed of it. It uses every cliché in the book and it uses them to full effect, better than any rom-com I've seen in ages. In an age where the classic rom-com is all but dead, when hipsterish films like (500) Days of Summer subvert every rule of the genre to hell and back for the sake of being edgy and subversive, Friends With Benefits is just self-aware and subversive enough to feel like it was made in 2011 and not twenty years earlier, but even if they make a snarky remark while doing it about the lack of realism in this sort of film, they still do everything you know - and hope - they will. The amazing thing is, it works. This comedy inspires true catharsis in the viewer and reminds us all why these clichés and rules were created in the first place - long before the genre turned into the bad, sticky joke that it is.
A lot of the credit should go to the cast, of course; because a film like this could never work if you're not rooting for the two leads to end up together. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, it should be noted, are not in any way great actors. When each one is alone on the screen, they fail to impress, and when they interact with any member of the excellent supporting cast - Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson and even Emma Stone - Kunis and Timberlake are always the less interesting and less magnetic half of the scene. And yet - when they're together, they have an incredible and natural chemistry, one that only the great couples of the silver screen could ever achieve, and they make even the sex scenes, that could have been awkward with other actors, feel natural and pleasant. They makes for a real and likable couple that you want to root for, even relate to, so much so that you can set aside your cynicism and forget that the scenario would have been very different with two people who, well, don't look like Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake.
Most of all, though, it's the screenplay that makes Friends With Benefits work against all odds. It shows real wit and understanding of the characters' age-group, and doesn't try too hard to be hip and modern that it alienates the viewers and the actors. It's radiant with love for New York City, turning it into as major a player in the story as the lead characters, giving the story a strong sense of location and reality. Most impressive of all is the dialog during the sex scenes, which is more candid, realistic and hilarious than you would ever expect from a rom-com. Where other films would stop short when these scenes and fade to black and blast up the music, Friends With Benefits doesn't really show what people having sex look like - it's still a mainstream American comedy, after all - but it does show us how they act, and it's extremely accurate, avoiding any manner of idealization or romanticization and as a result is very relatable and as a result, very funny.
I'm a heterosexual male. I don't, by definition, like romantic comedies. But I liked this one. I understood where the story was going about ten minutes in, I knew exactly what the characters were going to do, but I'll be damned if I didn't really want them to do it. And I enjoyed it all the while. Friends With Benefits won't change the world, it's highly likely that I won't remember it two years from now. But if, ten years from now, it'll pop up on TV, it'll jog a pleasant memory, and I'll watch it all over again. And it'll be two hours I'm sure to enjoy.
Whether you take Dogtooth as an allegory or at face value, it's a disturbing and unsettling film. Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos used very naturalistic, realistic presentation and amateur actors to present the surreal story of a family of five living in total isolation in their country estate, the domineering parents creating a clean and controlled reality for their children to protect them from the temptations of the outside world.
It's not an easy film to absorb. Lanthimos throws the viewer right into a day in this family's life, and shows every aspect of it without rolling any punches, throwing an explicit (and disturbing) sex scene and some gruesome violence at the audience before they even have a chance to figure out what's going on. The naturalistic photography, uncompromising candor and relentless editing make for a very difficult watch, that many would have the stomach for and few would ever want to rewatch. And while the open ending makes sense, it also makes for a frustrating film with no catharsis that stays more or less still throughout, not quite using up the dramatic potential it starts out with. Still, it's an unusual and gutsy film, worth your time but not recommended for the easily offended.
The Naughty Nineties (1945)
Who's On First?
The one and only reason to watch this film, as far as I'm concerned, is that it contains the full-length, and probably the best, version of the famous 'Who's On First?' routine. The delivery of that routine is perfect, and it's a few of the most side-splittingly funny minutes ever put on film, and since it takes up nearly ten minutes of the film's 76 minute run, you might as well just go ahead and watch the whole thing, but unless you're an Abbott & Costello fan, you could well skip it and not lose any sleep about it. The Naughty Nineties has a couple of good routines and gags, and two or three very funny scenes of physical comedy; Costello is always tons of fun and Abbott is the ultimate straight-man, and when they're together on screen the dynamic is always great. But there are far too many scenes where only one of them is featured, and those always fall short; and the truth is, once you pass the 'Who's On First?' scene, nothing else comes close.
Witty but mellow
This piece of satire from 1957 was probably considered edgy and sharp back then, but it really didn't age too well, and there isn't much else about it to make it stand on its own legs as a classic. The witty send-ups of television, the advertising industry and celebrity culture seems tame and mellow now that real celebrity culture is so much more extreme than anybody in the 50's might have guessed, and reality had surpassed any possible satire. The film is still watchable, even entertaining - the script is solid and smart and has more double entendres than most writers back then and which probably should have never received the Hays code's approval. Joan Blondell is hilarious and steals the show whenever she's on screen, and obviously Jayne Mansfield is a screen presence to be reckoned with, and she nails her role here and is a real pleasure to watch. Tony Randall spoils it a little - he's just good enough to be passable as a dull straight man, but he's far more wooden and dull than the role calls for, and he did better before and after, most notably in TV's The Odd Couple. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is worth keeping if only because Jayne Mansfield films are so precious few, and it still has the slightly campy fun of a 50's comedy, but it isn't a classic worth lingering on.
L'uomo che guarda (1994)
While it's hard to take a Tinto Brass film as anything more than a guilty pleasure, L'uomo che guarda may be the closest he ever came to making a film with real depth and it succeeds in juggling campy erotica with character study and a statement about human nature. While the blatant sexuality and skimpy outfits often border on the absurd, and often make it difficult to take the story seriously - especially in the scenes with Dodo's father and his assistant - this isn't as extreme as in Brass's recent work, especially the hilarious Cosi fan tutte. And in several other scenes - the one with the bisexual photographer stands out, as well as the nudist beach dream sequence - the nudity and sex are used in a more mature, and even disturbing fashion. Brass isn't known for subtlety or minimalism in his sex scenes, and this film is no exception, but he uses it more smartly this time, constructing an interesting and complex character in Dodo and saying something more interesting than usual about voyeurism in human sexuality and, as an extension, in film. A smart erotic film that tries to make the viewer think rather than just turn them on, and definitely one worth checking out for anyone not offended by nudity and blatant sexuality.
Solid and well-acted, if a little on the light side
My only real complaint about Smashed would be that there's just not enough of it. Things happen way too fast, we get very little time with the relationship between Charlie and Kate before it starts crumbling, and I have a feeling that an extra fifteen minutes in the first act of the film - focusing on Charlie and Kate, rather than extra time given to Nick Offerman and Octavia Spencer, who do remarkable work but whose characters are given far too much screen-time - could have driven Smashed right into modern classic territory. Because the ingredients are all there - the screenplay is insightful, clever and touching, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul both deliver fantastic, fresh, funny and very real performances.
As it is, Smashed mostly remains a light-hearted slice-of-life dramedy that doesn't quite hold enough substance, nor does it make up its mind about how seriously it wants to treat the subject matter. Offerman offers a strange and disturbing comic relief where Aaron Paul's character - which seemed interesting and complex - is left barely explored. Winstead pretty much has to carry the film herself, and she does just that - her performance is the real revelation of the film, and she makes Kate a fascinating, real and complicated character who's hard not to love and care for, whatever questionable decisions she might make. Her performance and the screenplay make the story an engaging one that's hard to resist and made me just want to see more of.
When Night Is Falling (1995)
Didn't work for me
When Night is Falling is notable for one of the strongest and most realistic depiction of a lesbian sexual relationship ever seen on screen, and to its credit it portrays a lesbian relationship more naturally and positively than most films do, and if it helped any person anywhere feel better and more secure about their own sexuality, then it did its part and I applaud it. As a piece of cinema, though, it didn't really work for me. Pascale Bussières and Rachael Crawford are both quite good, but I didn't see any real chemistry between them; there's a sense of connection between the two only in the (very powerful and sensual) sex scenes, and since the film tries to portray their relationship as a romantic one in addition to a sexual one, I feel like it failed. Camille and Petra are clearly attracted to each other and Camille is in love with the concept that is Petra, but I never felt convinced that there's any genuine feeling between them. The romantic relationship between the two women remains a fairy-tale, and it doesn't have the realistic emotion that the film tries to achieve.
It doesn't help matters that the film tries for a statement against organized religion for trying to repress same-sex relationships. The problem here is that in the same breath the church chastises heterosexual relationships with about the same fervor as same-sex ones, and the criticism comes off muddled and vague.
The film tries hard to make itself memorable with some very pretty cinematography and tons of metaphors, but in the end it felt clumsy and amateurish to me. On one hand it strives for an honest and realistic depiction of a love affair; on the other it muddles it up with religious imagery and spiritual symbolism and it all feels like too much of an effort. It's all quite pretty, and the film indeed has some very memorable scenes, but it doesn't help the story or the message in any way, and it's not done well enough to make the film a real artistic achievement. For all the good it does, it stays on the level of an after-school special, rather than a true piece of cinema.
The Hit (1984)
Existential Crime Drama
Those only familiar with Stephen Frears more recent and audience-friendly work (High Fidelity, The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents) may not know what to make of The Hit, but it's a masterpiece deserving of much more attention than it usually gets. With the distinction of being Tim Roth's first big-screen role, as well as starring veterans Terence Stamp and John Hurt, it's a surprise that the film isn't better known, but despite the shiny cast and the subject matter that could have made a blockbuster for Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, The Hit is not an easy watch. Frears took a premise right out of the crime drama genre, and turned it into a poetic road film, a character study and a thesis in existential philosophy.
It works incredibly well thanks to the chemistry between the three leads, all excellent actors in top form who deliver very memorable performances, and thanks to Frears' sensitive treatment. The Hit is a simple, minimalistic film, and it's at its best when it's nothing but three men on the road together reacting to one another and to their own fears. The mob-movie framework gives the story its meat and its context but doesn't dominate it - at its heart it's all about the characters. It's an unusual, striking and effective film that, at its best, rivals Reservoir Dogs in its brutal and honest dissection of honor among thieves and the relationships between violent people.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
A Waste of Talent
The big problem with Quantum of Solace isn't that it's a horrible movie - it's better than most Pierce Brosnan headed Bond films, and director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction) clearly tried to inject some of his skill and sensitivity into the shots and the pacing. Perhaps, had he been given a stronger screenplay to work with, he might have made it memorable; as it is, Forster's talent is wasted on one of the most forgettable, unnecessary Bond films ever made. Even the silliest of Roger Moore adventures had more to make them stand out and make an impression than this one.
It's possible that this feeling derives partly from the fact that Quantum of Solace was intended as a direct sequel to Casino Royale, more so than any Bond movie made before; but more than a sequel, it feels like an appendix to that other film. Casino Royale made a mark partly thanks to the novelty of Daniel Craig as Bond and of the darker, more realistic atmosphere, which Quantum of Solace follows, but it also had a simple yet intriguing story, a memorable villain and an interesting romantic interest - all of which Quantum of Solace lacks. Mathieu Amalric makes for one of the most nondescript of all Bond villains, and his fiendish plot is far less fiendish and far more complicated than it needs to be to get us interested; the Bond girls (Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton) barely have anything to tell them apart.
Instead of a coherent story, gripping action scenes or interesting characters, Quantum of Solace attempts to make a larger point about the nature of revenge, but the script isn't good enough to give that any weight. Craig does his best, as does Judi Dench, and their scenes together are by far the strongest parts of the film, but since we're talking about a Bond film after all, these little moments of human drama take up a very small part of the film, and the rest just doesn't work well enough. Quantum of Solace, despite having possibly the shortest runtime of all Bond movies, manages to be more confusing and complicated than most; and at the same time, feel like little more than an interlude between Casino Royale and Skyfall, making me feel that it could have just been inserted into an extended version of the first Craig film. Bond enthusiasts may want to check it out, but it's a film that the rest of us can easily live without.
The Ice Storm (1997)
It's easy to compare The Ice Storm to American Beauty and Happiness, both of which also dealt with disillusionment and the disintegration of the American Dream and the traditional family cell in the suburbs, and to a lesser extent The Sweet Hereafter which explored some similar themes in small town Canada. The Ice Storm is as cynical as those other films, but it's much more subtle in masking its sardonicism, and has aged much better than American Beauty, which had the appearance of a masterpiece at its release but looks flat and shallow now. The people in The Ice Storm feel more real and more human than the ones in American Beauty and Happiness; and the film walks that fine line between character-based slice-of-life storytelling and metaphorical satire, which works only because the viewer cares for the characters and their fates, while also absorbing the bigger issues under the surface.
That would not work without a strong ensemble cast; the actors in The Ice Storm are not among my favorites, yet they all outdo themselves and produce sympathetic, powerful, convincing performances - Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver are all at their very best, and the younger actors (Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Adam Hann-Byrd and - amazingly - even Katie Holmes) all deliver too. In contrast with the (intentionally) despicable characters in Happiness and American Beauty, these actors form a group of very average people that the viewer relates to and cares about - but the dysfunction and sickness is right there beneath the surface, waiting for the right catastrophe to explode.
There's an undefinable something that stops The Ice Storm short of becoming one of my favorites. The ending fits the mood of the rest of the film, but doesn't offer the catharsis that is needed, and it left me with a bitter taste. In the end, I found myself wishing that the film said more, and left more of a mark; the fact that it isn't often recognized as one of the best films of the 90's is simply because there's something not quite memorable about it. It's incredibly engaging throughout, though, and is definitely one of the strongest dramas of its time, beautifully shot, and a gem that's well worth discovering.
Light Sleeper (1992)
A Paul Schrader film set in the dark and gritty streets of Manhattan should always be a good sign, but rather than feeling like a welcome return to Taxi Driver territory, Light Sleeper feels like an attempted knock-off by an inferior writer and director. On the surface, it has everything it takes to be an instant classic - quality actors, gorgeous cinematography, a tormented and torn protagonist. But it doesn't add up to a coherent and captivating film; the various subplots go nowhere and don't lead to a satisfying conclusion, Dafoe's narration is filled to the brim with clichés of the genre, which doesn't help his character feel any more interesting than it does. The music is awful and feels like it was dragged out of the 80's, and destroys any pretense of a neo-noir atmosphere the film may have. And while Dafoe gives a solid performance, and Susan Sarandon is absolutely terrific playing decisively against type, Dana Delany and Jane Adams didn't work for me and took a lot of credibility away from the film.
Light Sleeper looks and feels like it should a neo-noir with old-fashioned storytelling and character study, which is why I wanted to like it much more than I did; maybe the high expectations are why I ended up disliking it more than it deserves. It's not a terrible movie - just one that should have been great, and is instead utterly forgettable and disposable. I remain a loyal fan of Paul Schrader, Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon, but to me this isn't a high point for any of them.
Den brysomme mannen (2006)
Funny and nightmarish
Labeling Den brysomme mannen as a comedy or a fantasy is misleading, but the film is nevertheless both hilarious and dream-like in its atmosphere. It's a Kafkaesque nightmare, funny and disturbing at the same time, and it successfully draws the viewer into a dream-like haze and puts you in the shoes of the lead character, a fish out of water in an eery plastic utopia. The film works on two levels - immersing the viewer in the experience for the duration of the film, while satirizing modern western society and specifically the perceived coldness and detachment of city life in Norway.
The film starts out incredibly strong and judged by its first two acts, it could have been one of the best films of the year; unfortunately it loses some wind in the last act, and allows the satire to lose its subtlety and become much more prominent than the atmosphere, throwing the viewer right out of the immersion built up during the first half and losing a lot of impact. Some scenes, especially the subway scene and the finale, are too over-the-top for anybody to be able to still be in the protagonist's shoes. And so, the last half hour make it a very good film rather than a great one, but still it's a fascinating and unusual film that will make you laugh and cringe, beautifully shot and well-acted, and well worth the time.
La stratégie de la poussette (2012)
Tired and Predictable
Thomas loves his girlfriend Marie, but she dumps him because he's not mature enough and she feels their relationship isn't going anywhere. When a convoluted (and barely explained) string of events leads to Thomas being stuck with having to take care of a baby, he somehow decides that it would be a good idea to try and convince Marie that he changed by pretending that he's the father. Obviously he gets caught in his own web of lies, and obviously he gradually comes to truly care for the baby and grows as a result, with a series of obvious and predictable hi-jinx and plenty of poop-jokes to go around leading up to the obvious happy ending.
I caught La stratégie de la poussette by chance on a flight from Paris; otherwise I never would have heard of it. It's a nice reminder of the screening process that doesn't apply to American cinema, and therefore makes it seem like European film is inherently better than American one simply because the truly bad or bland movies never make it out of their countries of origin. La stratégie de la poussette is the blandest and most predictable of rom-coms, one that could have been made in the 80's as easily as in 2012, and every joke is a painful cliché, even if Raphaël Personnaz is charismatic enough to make a couple of them work. There's some inspiration in the first and last scenes, but everything in-between would have felt right at home in an episode of Baby Daddy or in Three Men and a Baby (whether it's the French or American version). A sub-par, cheesy and outdated chick flick that will never make it outside of France, and has no right to.
Jamón Jamón (1992)
Ham to Ham Combat
Jamón, jamón is a dark, sexy, disturbing and very sarcastic romance, that mercilessly satirizes Spanish mentality and culture, though it can't in all honestly be labeled a comedy. It's no surprise that its most passionate advocates, as well as critics, are Spanish; but to the non-Spanish viewer, it's still an entertaining and captivating film. Unfortunately, it suffers from an amateurish execution that sometimes makes it feel more like a Spanish soap opera than a feature, and since the satire will go over many viewers' heads, the poor character development, melodramatic and unconvincing acting, and often mishandled cinematography may be quite off-putting. Director Bigas Luna clearly shares many passions and tastes with the more world-famous Pedro Almodóvar, but he can't match Almodóvar artistry and visual flair; the heavy-handed symbolism, quirky sexuality and scenes that are apparently weird for the sake of weird make it feel like an Almodóvar rip-off (which it's not) and make it harder to appreciate the stronger scenes and the biting satire.
For non-Spanish viewers, the film's main draw is getting to see Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem very early in their careers; while their top-billing position make it look like Stefania Sandrelli and Anna Galiena are the stars (probably because they were much bigger names in 1992) Cruz and Bardem are not only the real leads but also provide the film's best acting by far, so much so that whenever the scene cuts to one where neither one appears, the TV-soap feeling is suddenly much more pronounced - Sandrelli, Galiena and Jordi Mollà are ludicrously over-the-top, which is part of the point, but Cruz and Bardem manage to transcend that ludicrousness and their characters' flatness and are enough to make the film flow quite well. Fans of either one should definitely check it out; for them or for anyone else, it's a memorable and unusual film, worth your time, but very flawed and should not be approached with very high expectations.
The Sex Monster (1999)
The Sex Monster has enough halfway funny moments to make it watchable, and it takes itself so lightly that it's hard to take any real offense at how moronic its humor is, how predictable it is or how very utterly it fails at understanding human (especially female) behavior and portraying human relationship with any manner of realism. It's silly and farcical enough that it can get away with all that, but the fact is it just doesn't work. It's not funny enough; it's not perceptive enough to stand as a relationship comedy, it's unwatchable for women, and as for the horny men who might expect to enjoy it, they will be disappointed by the complete lack of nudity or sex scenes or, even, any feeling of sensuality - there is absolutely no sexual tension to be found. Mariel Hemingway (to me, forever Manhattan's charming young Tracy) does well with whatever material she gets, as sweet and charismatic as ever, but she can't help the script make her character feel like a real person, and she can't make the lesbian scenes work; on the other hand, writer/director Mike Binder cast himself as the entirely unlikable protagonist, through whose eyes we see the entire film, and he's so whiny and self-absorbed that he's absolutely impossible to relate to, nor does he go through any sort of development throughout the film. Binder would have better luck as director in the following decade, but The Sex Monster is completely skippable.
Life of Pi (2012)
A fantastic voyage
The little I knew about Life of Pi before seeing it - a young Indian man is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger - couldn't in any way prepare me for what I was about to see. The truly amazing thing is that that's pretty much all there is to it. Ang Lee weaves an incredible amount of emotion and depth into a very minimalistic, poetic story, and for that reason Life of Pi may be the most impressive cinematic achievement of the year - it's true cinema, a film that doesn't rely on a complex plot, shocking twists or tons of characters, but simply on coherent, free-flowing storytelling, beautiful images and utter precision. There's not a wasted minute or an unnecessary shot - the special effects are impressive but always subtle enough to leave center stage for the story. The film is incredibly easy to get into, it's constantly interesting, it's simple yet deep, and it leaves a lasting impression and plenty of room for debate - really, what more can you want from a film?
Ang Lee is proving time after time that while he hasn't become a brand name like Spielberg and Tarantino, he's one of the most fascinating directors working today, mainly because he doesn't make the same film twice; Life of Pi is a perfect example to use when demonstrating how important a director is, and how much a good director can do with a very lean and (on the surface) plain script. Lee always had an eye for beautiful imagery, though, and Claudio Miranda's cinematography in Life of Pi makes for some of the most beautiful yet; not only the bulk of the film that takes place in the middle of the ocean and is dominated by CGI, but also the live action segments, especially the first thirty minutes. The opening sequence in particular is one of the most gorgeous I've seen in years, and while watching it in 3D makes the immersion a bit quicker, it's by no means essential and it's impossible to not get lost in the film, no matter how you watch it.
A quick word on religion: I've heard about some people who avoid Life of Pi because, as atheists, they reject the religious undertones. I'm a devout atheist myself, and enjoyed it immensely, and I encourage other atheists to watch it too. The film has a spiritual undertone, yes, but it doesn't force salvation down the viewer's throat like some other films. In fact, I don't recall seeing another film that made me feel so sympathetic towards believers; it portrays religion in an ambivalent, affectionate yet critical way, and it leaves quite a lot up to the viewer's interpretation. It also makes a point of showing that, while religion has its purposes and can be of great help to people in tough situations, the division and hate between believers in different brands of religion is the thing that messes everything up, which is a message that I, as an atheist, related to. All religion, Life of Pi says, is pretty much the same - it's a way of coloring reality, of making it easier to handle and seeing the beautiful side of it. Like stories, and like films. Life of Pi is an ode to storytellers, be they Pi, the originators of religion or Ang Lee itself, and it's one of the most beautiful pieces of storytelling you'll see.
Angel Face (1953)
Angel Face didn't go down in history as an essential piece of the film-noir movement, nor is it Otto Preminger's most important contribution to the genre, but it still stands out from the rest, mainly by avoiding every cliché the genre has to offer. Preminger's direction is surprisingly subdued and subtle, never giving in to melodrama but always keeping a sense of tension even when very little is happening on screen. While it clearly belongs to the film noir genre, it's more a character study than a mystery or a thriller - and for once, both the male and the female leads are equally intriguing and morally ambiguous.
Credit should go to the actors too, of course - Robert Mitchum is at his best and for me he was much more convincing as a questionable mechanic/driver than he ever was as a private eye; he brings a lot of heart into this otherwise sleazy role. Jean Simmons may not have had the charisma of Lauren Bacall or Ingrid Bergman but she did have her own unique presence (not to mention a remarkably beautiful face) and she makes Diane mysterious and fascinating, playing with the femme fatale and damsel in distress stereotypes without fitting into either one. Preminger, though, gets all the credit for not going the easy way by presenting their relationship as a passionate romance; Frank and Diane are both strong and independent characters who are clearly attracted to each other, but they're both in it for their own interests and never lose themselves in a dramatic and uncontrollable love affair. It makes for a story that's more cynical and more realistic than almost anything else in the genre. A must watch for any real film-noir fan, and for Robert Mitchum fans too.
Save the Tiger (1973)
Don't Miss It
Some younger viewers may wonder how a comedian like Jack Lemmon, in a practically unknown film called Save the Tiger, could have possibly swiped the Best Actor Oscar from legendary actors like Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail) and Al Pacino (Serpico). But if they'll actually watch the film, they'll find that Lemmon's performance is indeed better than all of them. In his first major dramatic role since Days of Wine and Roses (1962) he proves that he's much more than just a comedian, and that he's just as good as any of the young hot-shots of his time (Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro, Redford) and can even be as intense as his more celebrated peer Brando (with the added bonus of being funny, too).
Lemmon plays businessman Harry Stoner with quiet intensity, emotions always bubbling beneath the surface. Stoner is jaded, nostalgic, a former idealist on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Lemmon delivers all that with utmost subtlety and hints of tremendous depth. Some may find Save the Tiger dull or slow, but it's a film that rewards patience and close attention - it's a character study in the finest sense of the word, and Lemmon is more than up to the task. Though some credit should be given to his excellent supporting cast (including Jack Gilford, Laurie Heineman, Norman Burton and Ned Glass) it's clearly Lemmon's show, and he delivers one of the finest acting jobs in the history of cinema. It demands a lot of patience from the viewer - more than Last Tango in Paris or Serpico, that's for sure. But it's worth every minute.