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Man of Steel (2013)
Not even Amy Adams, one of the most magnetic actresses working today, can bring emotional life or plausibility to this supposedly serious story.
17 June 2013
From the very beginning of "Man of Steel," in which we see a mother suffer through the agonies and processes of childbirth, the director, Zack Snyder, has declared war on our senses. He opens his picture with a series of clumsily staged and frequently out-of-focus shots while the Foley flares up to the point where the theater speakers sound as though they might explode. I never imagined I would see a superhero picture (let alone one starring the Man of Steel himself, Superman) that opened with a screaming woman and an infant dripping with amniotic fluid. But alas, this extremely discomforting and frankly weird sequence sets the mood for the entire 143 minutes that ensues. For this new Superman is one of the most visually aggressive and unpleasantly loud movies of the year.

There is some minimal comfort: we're not the only ones subjected to director Snyder's assault. Throughout the picture, anything and everything that can demolished or bruised or beaten in any sort of way receives a grueling fate. Entire rows of cars go up in flames; skyscrapers pummel to the ground; windows are popped into thousands of shards one after another; and the occasional human neck is snapped like a dry twig. Snyder not only directs every single sequence in a fast-moving, relentless manner (with the camera lenses pushed in much too far), but he does not allow for any breather space. As soon as one object (or person) has been obliterated, something else is sent off to join it. It is nonstop noise. Everything is noisy; even the tapping of a pencil on a desk brim rattles the soundtrack. Let's also take note that Superman no longer takes off and glides before picking up speed. Now he launches from the ground with all the earsplitting frequency and velocity of a space-bound rocket. And that's simply ignoring the trombone-heavy score by Hans Zimmer, which is excellent enough on its own terms, but pushed up in volume too high by the sound editors, so that it seems to bleed through all of the explosions and screaming and collisions that are already assailing our ears.

So, what is the point behind all this? Even though Snyder directed "Man of Steel," the dominant artist involved in terms of storytelling and mood is the producer, Christopher Nolan, who made the three recent Batman pictures. Those movies (two of which I hold with immense respect and admiration) successfully transformed the Caped Crusader from a dork in a bat suit into an interesting and oddly fascinating character…even with that silly and not-scary voice. Nolan's Batman went from silly to serious, and now he appears to be trying the same with Superman.

But here is the problem. Out of all of the superhero characters, Batman is the one you can afford to take dead-serious, because he's the one who is grounded closest to reality; he's flesh-and-blood; he's human and mortal in every way, except in his legacy and image. When dealing with a figure like Superman, who hails from an alien planet and can spew lobotomizing, crimson beams from his eyes, there needs to be some room for science-fiction wonder and spectacle.

You also, given his origins, need to evoke a human side. And here is where both Nolan and Snyder have utterly failed with their film. The alter-ego of Clark Kent is absolutely essential for the Superman character, because in that personae, he brings something credible to the table, something you can relate to and identify with. In "Man of Steel," we have to wait until the last half-dozen shots to see him don those awkward glasses and stuttering demeanor. Because of this, since he spends the rest of the movie in his impersonal, alien mode, this new Superman is nothing more than a brooding outsider. I usually refrain from comparing entries in a movie-franchise, but if I may say so, the alter-ego dynamic was what made the original "Superman: The Movie" from 1978 such a smashing success. As played by Christopher Reeve, the character spent most of his time in disguise, putting on an act, but still involving us in the story. And that's why there was such wonderful chemistry between Reeve (who in my mind, will always be Superman) and Margot Kidder as the feisty, go-getting reporter.

This is no condemnation of either Henry Cavill, as Superman, or Amy Adams, as the reporter, in "Man of Steel." Their biggest foes are not the alien invaders (whose ships resemble something out of the "Star Gate" television series), but the utterly bland characters thrown in their laps. With this script, Cavill is bland and impersonal. We never get any real chance to understand him as a character, because, again, the movie is constantly forcing him to go into muscle-man mode, saving people from exploding oil rigs and sinking school buses. The only time he shows any sign of a human side is during the film's one truly spell-binding scene where Superman discovers his ability to fly. When he first takes off, Cavill begins to laugh, tickled at his own ability, like a child. And it is only here that the movie allows any significant stretch of time for the material to develop and enhance and for the meanings to resonate with us. Before and after this point, it just goes on, banging away to no apparent end. And just when things seem to quiet down – lo and behold! – a satellite falls out of the sky, and the over-pumped Foley rattles our ears. No matter all the talent put before and behind the camera, "Man of Steel" is not much more than a big, impersonal bore.

Oh, and as for the love story. Forget about it. Not even Amy Adams, one of the most magnetic of actresses working today, can bring emotional life to this supposedly serious story.
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I liked the music more than anything else....
3 June 2013
Not since the dismal "AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem" back in 2007 has a movie's cinematography frustrated and angered me as much as the nonstop barrage of heavy shadows, scribble-like silhouettes, and runny blue tints to be found in "A Good Day to Die Hard." This is one of those movies where every scene, even those in broad daylight, appears to be dark and dreary, as though somebody had placed a fine strip of blue plastic wrap over the camera lenses. Now, granted, dark cinematography is rather commonplace in movies such as this—because it helps guise the faults and lapses in both special effects and stunt work—but the results here are absurdly amateurish. As I sat watching this movie for what seemed like a really long time (but in fact was a brisk 98 minutes), I couldn't help but wonder if the director of photography, Jonathan Sela, had never heard of three-point lighting or color correction.

Very frequently, characters disappear or blend in with their shadow-drenched surroundings; and, when night falls upon them, the brightest thing on the screen is the sweat gleaming to Bruce Willis's forehead. When it comes to evening-set sequences, Sela seems to have a fetish with backlighting and silhouettes and no concern at all with brightening up the part of the actors and sets that are nearest to us. Nothing, not even a uranium-enhanced grenade or a rising sun, can brighten this film's imagery.

I can safely theorize that the director of this film, John Moore, has a place in action-filmmaking. I really enjoyed his tactic of, for his opening, having us hear the sounds of a riot without seeing anything—the one time, I think, where we were intended not to see anything. As demonstrated in an early car chase scene (the one where we can adequately see what is happening), he demonstrates a wicked instinct for staging his camera and not relying on claustrophobic close- ups to the point where it becomes nauseating. When a car flips and tumbles around on the Moscow highways (and it happens numerous times in this particular scene), Moore's cameras toggle back and forth, showing us the event from multiple angles—maybe a little too much, as though Moore set up so many cameras for fearing of one missing the action, and then feeling obliged to show everybody's results—and it is quite exciting.

However, the fun stops right there. One of the key definitions to a strong action movie is the ability to absorb the audience in the narrative...even if the said narrative makes little to no sense. I probably don't need to mention this, but "A Good Day to Die Hard" is merely the latest in a long series of movies and, two sequels before, the movie "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" used a plot that also made little sense. But the screenplay wisely paced itself at a quick yet satisfying rhythm so the audience didn't have too much time to think about plausibility and just enjoy the spectacle and the mind games. For this fifth adventure, in which poor Bruce Willis once again winds up throwing himself around bullet-strewn architecture, the logic flies around with little redeeming entertainment value. Had the storytellers swamped me under their own terms, I wouldn't have minded if the hero and his high-strung CIA agent of a son could throw themselves through a high-rise window, knowing there was a pulpit for them to land on, knowing that the board they broke through would lead to a tunnel that would take them safely to ground level.

As much as I disliked "A Good Day to Die Hard," I cannot pass it off as meritless. For one thing, Willis still possesses a screen-commanding presence and style, even if his character has diminished into a soulless, impersonal fighting machine. As his son, Jai Courtney also displays a certain level of on-screen confidence. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also in the picture, though only for the prologue and epilogue, and once again, did not fail to charm me. I've already talked about director Moore's prospects for future, better projects. And finally, I really do wish to grant credit to the composer for the music score. Veteran maestro Marco Beltrami's instruments and conduction do elevate some of the movie's lackluster scenes. So, at moments, I didn't mind so much that I couldn't see anything on the screen, for the music made for an excellent listening experience. He also plays it smart by only reusing a few moments of Michael Kamen's repeating score from the original 1988 film.

One footnote: those expecting to hear the Ode to Joy come into play again, prepare for yet another thunderously disappointing aspect.

I'd intended to see "A Good Day to Die Hard" on its debut last Valentine's Day. That night, however, a blizzard swept over and froze the engine of my car to a sputtering stop. I wound up holding off on seeing the picture, and now, in hindsight, I'm rather glad I did. Seeing a big disappointment on the big screen, having invested a fair few dollars into it, would have only made matters worse. As much as I would love to proclaim affection for this picture, I must glumly report that "A Good Day to Die Hard" has finally spun into the realms where I thought the Die Hard series would never go: immense boredom.
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The H-Man (1958)
With some reservations, I would even go so far as to call this one of my more favorite Toho movies of the 50s.
3 March 2013
Even though it is not, in totality, a great film, Ishiro Honda's "The H-Man" (or "Beauty and the Liquid People" as it was named in its own country) has some remarkable things in it. The cast is a harvest of reliable acting talents; the movie features some tremendously effective special effects; and the photography is luscious and rich with color. What is most remarkable about "The H-Man," however, is the way it combines two radically different genres, and yet gives each genre its due and moments to shine. If the movie were just a horror story or just a yakuza melodrama, it still would have been an interesting picture. And once combined, they form one of Toho's most intriguing, if uneven, efforts to date.

We also get Honda's usual symbolism, once again on the atomic bomb. And once again, as in "Mothra," it is applied in a rather subtle manner. Honda opens the movie with an eye-popping, wholly unexpected nuclear explosion and then shies away from talking about his message for quite a spell. The eponymous H-Men, a race of liquid organisms that can take the shape of humans and dissolve any living thing they come into contact with, are supposedly an aftereffect from nuclear testing in the South Pacific. When they disintegrate a person, leaving nothing but their clothes behind, the area is teeming with radiation. But Honda does not take the cheap shot; he does not drag out his story with chatter and contemplation about man messing with the balance of the world. His only lapse is at the end, when he allows Takashi Kimura's screenplay to blabber, via an unimportant supporting character, about how man should stop tinkering with nuclear energy, else let the H-Men take over in the future. Here, the allegory comes on a bit thick, and the end monologue does not come across as hauntingly fresh as it was in "Godzilla," but instead, on the pretentious side.

For the most part, however, both Honda and Kimura allow the double-edged plot to take center-stage. It's a combination I very much enjoyed, particularly the half about the Japanese gangsters and the police department's attempts to drag them into the gutter. There are some terrific character actors in the film's police force, including Akihiko Hirata, Yoshio Tsuchiya and Eitaro Ozawa. Now granted, the policemen are not developed as really anything but policemen – straight-shooters who seldom smile and scoff at the suggestion that liquid-men are running amok in Tokyo – but the actors breathe such life into them, as to make them interesting. Take Yoshifumi Tajima, for instance. He plays the most skeptic cop you could ask for – no real depth of character – and yet when he winds up being killed by one of the monsters, I actually felt a bit down. I liked that character, or at least Tajima's interpretation of that character.

If only there was more life put into the love story. And this is what I think disqualifies "The H-Man" from being a truly great film. The movie would like us to care about the couple (a yakuza's moll and a daring young scientist trying to warn the cops of the impending danger), but the emotional involvements adds up to zero. This is not a reflection on the two performers. Kenji Sahara and Yumi Shirakawa are superb talents and even proved two years before, in Honda's better film "Rodan," that they can effectively play lovers on film. But "Rodan" gave them things to do together, moments to shine in each other's company. The screenplay of "The H-Man" asks us to believe in their chemistry after they meet very briefly, pass a few insignificant words, and when Shirakawa sobs into Sahara's shoulder. I really wanted more meaningful scenes between them.

Shirakawa, on the other hand, does run away with the show, and she does have the best-rounded character. From the get-go, we like this soft-eyed, confused girl, and we sympathize with her when both rival gangsters and skeptical detectives refuse to quit hounding her. And at the end, when a snarling gangster starts dragging her through the sewers of Tokyo, all the while getting themselves surrounded by liquid-men, I felt myself really worrying about what would become of her, and really hoping her captor would get his comeuppance.

But the horror story works well, too. Most of all, because how Kimura's screenplay depicts the H-Men as mostly a predatory substance, maintaining very little of what made them human to begin with. It's not at all like the cartoonish demeanor of the organism from "Space Amoeba." The H-Men attack like parasites ensuring their own survival. When one of them takes the form of a man, in which case they glow with a tremendous neon aura, they are dazzling. But I really like how most of the time, they melt down into a moving sludge that crawls up and down the walls. There are some laughable moments (such as a freeze-frame shot of a victim while animated sludge consumes her body, mercifully cut from the U.S. print of the picture), but the good moments far outnumber the bad ones. Part of the fun of these special effects is just wondering how, given 1950s technology, the staff could pull it off. Especially when sludge starts crawling out of a pool of water and we cannot see any signs of a reverse-speed shot. Aided by Masaru Sato's gentle yet ominous music, the monsters do have a presence of their own.

It is such a relief to finally have Ishiro Honda's "The H-Man" widely available in the United States. For the picture really is a delightful little experience. Even its U.S. print maintains the fun, making a few small edits for pacing and completely honoring the original premise. With some reservations, I would even go so far as to call this one of my more favorite Toho movies of the 50s.
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Heaven's Gate (1980)
"Heaven's Gate" is not one of the worst movies ever made, but it is awfully temping, for me, to call it just that.
23 February 2013
"Heaven's Gate," to my mind, is not the near-masterpiece a lot of revisionist critics and movie-lovers have predictably named it in the last few years. I can understand the many reasons behind giving the film a second chance: it was an unprecedented box office failure when it first came out in 1980; the critics at the time, lead by the great Vincent Canby of the New York Times, tore it to ribbons; the director, Michael Cimino, before proclaimed as one of the most promising of New Hollywood directors, has had next to nothing for a career in movie-making since; there's a lot of famous actors in the movie, two of whom are making their feature-length debut; and it's based on a true event.

And on top of that, who wouldn't want to like it? Apart from the obvious (only the world's biggest cynic wouldn't want to enjoy a movie that runs 216 minutes), "Heaven's Gate" is a big, blustery epic. I happen to love big, blustery epics, especially ones set in the Old West. Now Michael Cimino, it goes without saying, did not want to make one of the biggest box office and critical flops of all time; he just wanted to tell a fictionalized account of the Johnson County War. But his film is insipidly tedious and incoherent, and every passing minute is more unendurably soulless than the one that comes before it.

There is a vast, grand-scale vision, to the point where Cimino almost seems to have been shy about photographing a close-up of anyone or anything. And sometimes the camera does move in ways that are undeniably interesting—sweeping up and over a laundry line of bed sheets to reveal homesteaders as they finish butchering a cow. There's also a shot in the second half which recalls the haunting moment in Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" when the bandits came flooding over the hilltops. Kurosawa's picture—which did not have the timely advantage of a wide-angle lens, by the way—also ran just under four hours in length, but was constantly moving, even in its quieter moments. Each scene had a purpose and appropriately wrapped itself up as needed, not as in the case of "Heaven's Gate," where ninety percent of the concluding shots consist of two people sitting in a room, looking either off-screen or at their toes. Also not in service is the photography, which is filled with so much visual dust that it looks as though the camera and the set had been separated by a dirty window.

Maybe Cimino's idea for the dramatic scenes was to mimic another great Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. Here, the camera hardly ever moves; the static shots linger on too long and pile on top of one another with no particular style or rhythm. And in many of these interior-set, would-be dramatic scenes, in which characters just repeat points they made clear many times before, I think I came to better understand Vincent Canby's review, in which he compared the film's unrelenting boredom to a four-hour tour of a living room. Some of these scenes do feel that long, and we are frequently just staring at—guess what?—a room. The Academy Award-nominated art direction is authentically detailed and good-looking, but even the prettiest picture can lose its interest after a while.

The cast of "Heaven's Gate" is rich with talent, but only one man has a good part to act, and that's the underrated Sam Waterston, virtually unrecognizable compared to his now-famous district attorney in "Law & Order," this time playing a cruel land commissioner. Everybody else is stiff like a corpse and packed with mawkish emotion. The would-be love triangle between Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken—playing enforcers on opposite sides of the law—and an immigrant prostitute portrayed by Isabelle Huppert is utilized with no apparent motive except to tell us that a man and a woman, even if they come from different parts of the world, can fall in love. Any intelligent person from the 20th or 21st century already knows that. The point is obvious, so why not instill this dynamic with so passion? When Kristofferson and Huppert fondle and kiss in their first moment together, it feels forced; the actors seem outside their comfort zones. They don't really seem warm and affectionate, or even erotic, toward one another.

John Hurt's also in the movie, playing a dimmer version of his usual wisecracking philosopher. But all of these people have no interest with one another, and yet so much of the story focuses on two or three folks just whispering to one another in an enclosed space. Now when the battles between the homesteaders and the mercenaries begin, Cimino promises some exciting action. The first bit—where an innocent man is brutally murdered—is excellently handled. The Foley, in particular, is marvelous. But each of the three subsequent violent sequences is less exhilarating the one before it, not helped in the least by the 10-20 minutes of drippy melodrama stuffed in between.

"Heaven's Gate" is not one of the worst movies ever made, but it is awfully tempting, for me, to call it just that. For 216 minutes, it left me writhing with boredom and frustration, only occasionally interested. I can forgive the movie's pointless prologue of a beginning, for it does feature what is probably the best scene set to the "Blue Danube" waltz since "2001: A Space Odyssey." But the ending, which is factually much shorter but seems so much longer, is an incoherent and confusing fiasco. As is much of what happens in the middle. So, no, the movie is not particularly worth rediscovering as far as I am concerned. Yes, Michael Cimino is a brilliant talent, and he deserved a better chance to redeem himself. But that's no excuse for mislabeling one of the clunkiest pictures ever made as a masterpiece.
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Side Effects (I) (2013)
"Side Effects" has a double-pleasure effect, the emphasis depending upon which hour we happen to be watching at the time
8 February 2013
A number of prominent critics working in the United States today have described Steven Soderbergh's swan song as a post-modern Hitchcockian thriller. The movie, called "Side Effects" has more artsy qualities (more trick lenses and color-softened images) but does contain many of the same attributes the Master of Suspense himself was very fond of: an innocent man caught in a grotesquely complicated mess; the soft-eyed girl who is not what she seems to be; a subtle touch of homophobia. In particular, the movie recalls Hitchcock's very best movie "Vertigo." That one, as you may recall, had us convinced for about ninety minutes that it was a supernatural thriller—a ghost story blended with a romance—only to stomp on us in the final reel with the fact that we had been duped all along and there was nothing other-worldly about the plot to begin with. "Side Effects" does not take the exact same approach, but it does a stupendous job of fooling around with our minds, and then letting all of the secrets bombard us at the end. Thus, the final shot in the movie (a reversed image of the first) has a touch to poetry to it.

And the mystery is clever. If Soderbergh finally does carry out his threat to retire from Hollywood, he can at least boast his last movie caught us all off guard. Nobody walking out of this film can claim the ending was predictable unless they either read a synopsis before going in, had seen it already, or are pathetic liars vying for attention by posing as intellectuals.

The timing for this movie's release could not be better. Our memories are still fresh with Soderbergh's "Contagion," which I still honestly believe was the best movie to come out of the otherwise rotten year of 2011. That picture was praised by many, myself included, for taking an overworked premise and playing it out with a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach. So naturally, we would expect the same from "Side Effects"—except the plot this time concerns the possibly psychological effects of drugs as opposed to a worldwide epidemic. So the movie has a double-pleasure effect, the emphasis depending on which half we are watching at the time. In the beginning, I was appreciating the bold and interesting ways it dealt with the story of a severely depressed woman (Rooney Mara) and the way things spiraled out of control after being subjected to an experimental prescription drug. In the second half—the final thirty minutes, most of all—I was overwhelmed by the fact that the filmmakers had tricked me all along. And the double crosses, twists, and subplot denouements come at us in full force.

Scott Z. Burns, who composed the original screenplay, makes the right choice in how he reveals the answers. Frankly, it is ludicrous; it's not something we would believe, if given more than a few minutes to think, could really happen. And if it could, we doubt anybody would try to go through with this scheme (which involves a premeditated murder, double existences, and the stock market) because it is so complicated and there would be so many easier ways, in real life, to pull it off. But Burns smartly gives us the answers one after another and in such close proximity to one another that we do not have time to think about the plausibility (or lack thereof) until the film is over. And by that point, I was so giddily pleased, I did not care. After all, going back to "Vertigo" and the popular comparison of "Side Effects" to Hitchcock, the ending of the 1958 film boasted a secret that was also preposterous and convoluted, yet both movies are so absorbingly told that we swallow up every little point and detail thrown our way.

Steven Soderbergh has probably never made a perfect movie (he's made some near-perfect ones, like "Contagion") because he's constantly taking chances. So "Side Effects" has some loose ends, some weaknesses of its own. First and foremost, there are my small problems with the pacing. In the entire 106 minutes, there was never a long stretch where I was bored, but there were some small individual stretches (a few isolated scenes) that started to lose my interest. Example: a scene where the excellent actor Jude Law, as the psychiatrist who prescribes the supposedly mind-altering drugs, is questioned by a state attorney. The dialogue is good, but there's too many dead space, too many static shots, and it goes on for too long. Then there's Thomas Newman's music. A Steven Soderbergh movie always seems to have a sort of avant-garde feel to its soundtrack no matter who composes it. The soundtracks to this film, "Contagion," and another recent Soderbergh film, "Haywire," were all composed by different people, yet sound the same. It's subtle. But frequently, the artsy aspects bubble and pop too much, and the ending theme (which sounds too much like something we'd hear in an African tribal dance) is the only thing that softens an otherwise perfect ending.

Rooney Mara (who along with Jennifer Lawrence, Felicity Jones, and Ellen Page) is among the most interesting of young actresses today, deserves an Academy Award nomination for her (I can give this away) double-edged performance. Jude Law, once again playing a man who gets in trouble when fiddling with drugs, is also in excellent form and I hope he gets special recognition as well. There are other excellent performances (Catherine Zeta-Jones is marvelous as a fellow psychiatrist), but these two run away with the movie. The whole narrative relies upon their actions. And then there is the other big pleasure of watching a Steven Soderbergh movie—just looking at the images. Every shot is and flourished with color and contrast. To touch very lightly on the subject of Soderbergh's decision to retire: "Side Effects" defines brilliantly what we stand to lose in today's cinema.
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Like Crazy (2011)
This is perhaps the warmest and yet most bittersweet love story I have seen since "(500) Days of Summer"
3 February 2013
From the very first sequence in "Like Crazy," Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones—the stars of this beautifully touching little jewel—have us convinced they love each other. These two attractively talented young performers have such easygoing, naturalistic, and warm chemistry on-screen together, and they maintain it through all the ups and downs the screenplay throws in their paths. And by the end of the movie, even though the hurdles these two have had to jump over has undoubtedly withered their passion, the love is still ever-present. Hence it becomes so heart-breaking that we realize these two may go on loving each other forever without really having much mutual respect anymore. And we are just as prone to blame the party indirectly responsible: the immigration airline lawmakers, who decide that since Miss Jones, a visitor from England, overstayed her student visa, that she cannot return to the United States.

"Like Crazy" has all the advantages and disadvantages of a Sundance-targeted movie. It has those film festival, semi-avant-garde traits: the sped-up time lapses; the odd camera angles. And the editing, to be frank, is unattractively goofy. It is loaded with awkward jump cuts and bizarre misc en scene, some of which actually made me feel a tad uncomfortable. Sequences as simple as two people talking in a room is cut in commercial-format with some shots lasting a mere second and others lasting just a fraction of one. In the case of "Like Crazy," maybe the editor did the best he could, since all accounts insist every line of dialogue was improvised by the actors. I'm sure there was a lot of fat to trim. Everybody was taking a chance with this one. But even through all the awkwardness, the filmmakers do maintain something very vital—pacing—and allow Mr. Yelchin and Miss Jones to run away with the story.

I have always said that when it comes to romances put on film, I have one simple demand: convince me that the couple is more than just an actor and an actress playing make-believe; convince me they really do love and care about one another; convince me they do, at least at one point, want to spend the rest of their lives together. "Like Crazy" certainly does accomplish that, but what it also does is something incredibly rare in today's cinema. It gets you to care about the supporting characters as well. Next to the two stars, the biggest name here is recent Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence. About midway through the movie, we are introduced to her, and the storytelling and performances are so pure that five minutes later, when she starts to break down in tears, realizing the man she loves still has feeling for somebody else, we feel for her. A person we just met, and we sympathize with her! This is a movie that cares about all of its characters and understands its characters as people. As human beings.

This is perhaps the warmest and yet most bittersweet love story I have seen since—what else?—"(500) Days of the Summer" a few years back. It is also physically attractive. If you can get around the jumpy editing style and the fact that the hand-held camera is frequently jostling and twitching like a drunk man on a curb, the cinematography is lush and pretty. The setting jumps between Los Angeles and London; both cities look gorgeous. With such good lighting, even the crummy apartments and Los Angeles dorm rooms look sort of cozy. But again, it all goes back to the performances. Mr. Yelchin and Miss Jones do such superb work rounding out their characters and at several points in the movie, at the end in particular, we will be standing right there with them, wishing the airline laws could have made an exception and not caused this once-warm relationship to spiral downwards. Just once. Of course, that's only in the context of the movie. For the sake of the two main characters. As viewers, we feel sad, but appreciate that the storytellers had the guts to make the ending they did. I adored this movie.
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I cannot adequately describe how much I wanted to love this movie, but I must be honest: it did not get me involved.
2 February 2013
By this point in time, everybody is drooling over Melanie Lynskey's performance in "Hello I Must Be Going." I am too. But my admiration does not end strictly with her work in this ambitious little movie; there is a lot of due credit owed to her co-stars, particularly newcomer Christopher Abbott, who plays her much-younger lover, and the insistently reliable Blythe Danner as Miss Lynskey's mother. I guess Miss Lynskey is collecting most of the praise because ever since "Heavenly Creatures" in 1994 and her last appearance in "Two and a Half Men" (one of my favorite shows) everybody wants to see her become a big star. But she and everybody else in "Hello I Must Be Going" is in good form. My only wish was that they were encapsulated by a screenplay worthy of their energy and panache.

I cannot adequately describe how much I wanted to love this movie. Stories about nonconformist relationships interest me, in real life as well as in the movies. And this premise—a woman completely drained over her recent divorce discovering the true meaning of love and of live in her affair with a younger man—sounds like an absolute winner. Unfortunately, most of the fun and all of the really tender moments are collected in the first 25 minutes and the final 10; these wonderful bits, where I felt my heart strings being yanked on, sandwich a lot of padded-out detritus. And a lot of genuinely unfunny jokes. For instance: when will the romantic comedy genre ever give up on the gag where an elderly woman walks in upon a couple while they are skinny dipping? It wasn't funny when it happened to Campbell Scott and Julia Roberts in "Dying Young" 21 years ago, and it certainly is not funny here.

I cannot deny that the movie has great ambitions: it doesn't want to be just a love story; it wants to make some subtle yet true observations about life. Both Miss Lynskey and Mr. Abbott, in the course of their on-screen relationship, embark on an emotional journey, guiding them to realizing the emptiness surrounding them. A key moment in the picture is when they are having dinner with each other's families, and both are indirectly being put on the hot spot: Miss Lynskey's divorce keeps getting brought up, and Mr. Abbott's self-hated career in stage acting is the only dinner conversation his mother can think of. And then there is the final ten minutes, including a wonderful and entirely honest sequence about marriage, set in a New York diner. And I must commend screenwriter Sarah Koskoff for having the guts to write an ending in which not all of the bows are tied, not every character makes their amends.

The remarkable thing, however, is that Miss Lynskey and Mr. Abbott do not spend nearly as much time together as you would imagine. And many of their moments are punctuated by sex scenes—oh, boy, am I getting sick and tired of those as well! Thankfully, they are photographed very quick, but they do not seem to register an erotic or emotional effect. I suppose the idea was that the two characters used the sex to fill the voids in their own lives, but surely there are better ways for characters to bond. I personally am more interested in movie-couples who do not jump into bed (or into the backseat of a car, in this case) two days after they first lay eyes on one another. And after a while, good as they are, Miss Lynskey and Mr. Abbott run out of interesting things to talk about; they just start screaming at one another. And, closer to the end of the movie, just when we think we are about to get a truly beautiful moment—a reconciliation—the movie has to pull the dumb, somebody-opens-the-door gag which completely stops the scene. Then there's the excess characters: Julie White exists for no purpose other than to drive Melanie Lynskey home from the bar one night; Jimmi Simpson plays a drip so mawkishly pathetic that I found myself looking to my watch. I understand the point of the character: he's supposed to represent to Miss Lynskey what might eventually become of her. It's not the intentions or the acting, it's the writing.

Then there's the other thing that rubbed me raw. Laura Veirs is credited for writing the original score for this movie, but it's hard to appreciate her instrumental work since most of the soundtrack is riddled with about six or seven too many songs. Maybe it's a personal problem; I'm one of the few people of my generation (adult males under 30) who is not particularly interested in contemporary music. But if I saw one more walking scene with a bunch of overblown lyrics thumping away in the background, I was going to start pounding my forehead.

Believe me when I tell you, I really regret having to stomp all over "Hello I Must Be Going." There is so much ambition in this movie and so many really talented people involved. And even though I've faulted screenwriter Koskoff's work, she does show promise: a bold story and some bursts of really good dialogue. As somebody who has been on the set of an independent movie, I know how much hard work goes into making one. I know script changes are constantly being made; there's pressure to get everything done on schedule. And above all, I hate to put it down for the same reason I always hate giving negative reviews in general: I have to admit to a storyteller that I did not like the story they were telling. But I have to be absolutely honest: "Hello I Must Be Going" did not register very much emotional impact with me. Again, in the beginning and at the end, there is a lot of punch, the middle of the movie really drags for me.
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I have a hankering to see it again, myself, as a matter of fact.
1 February 2013
All the ads for "Bullet to the Head" bear the name and image of Sylvester Stallone, an actor who is perfectly at home in this sort of picture: a violent shoot-'em-up with a rogue gun-for-hire working with and against a straight-shooting cop. But, as far as I am concerned, there should be a second name plastered right alongside Mr. Stallone's. The extra credit is not, ironically enough, for the Korean actor Sung Kang, even though he is very good, but instead the film's director. I walked into "Bullet to the Head" with an open mind, hoping that Mr. Stallone could keep up the good track record he's had in the last couple of years (the last "Rambo" and both of the "Expendables" movies), but when I saw the words 'directed by Walter Hill' in the opening credits, I knew I was in for a good time.

It's a little hard to believe that this is the first time these two men have worked alongside one another, since they've both made their names doing the same general sorts of movies, and both have been kicking around Hollywood for roughly the same length of time. Better late than never, for even though "Bullet to the Head" is a little rougher than it might be, thanks to Mr. Stallone's charisma and Mr. Hill's sure hand for coordinating action, this movie does pack a walloping punch.

No time is wasted; the movie gets rolling within the first ten minutes. From the start of things, we know who our protagonist is, we know the central bad guy is, and we know there will be plenty of grisly action sequences. Mr. Stallone and Mr. Kang do have a lot of deliberately amusing moments together, most of the laughs collected whenever they are driving from one seedy New Orleans location to another, bickering about ethics, the justice system, the difference between Japanese and Koreans, and Mr. Stallone's relationship to a sassy tattoo artist played by Sarah Shahi. The villains in the picture are also delightfully self-indulgent: the 'brain' behind the whole operation, which involves the balance of power between organized crime and the justice system, is a crippled man whose signature line is: Never trust a man who doesn't care about money. The subject man is the expected big muscle-man with a smirk, Jason Momoa: a walking mountain of a man who walks in and shoots up an entire bar for little reason other than pleasure.

But what really makes the movie is what Walter Hill has always been a virtuoso at: excellent fight scenes. Mr. Hill sets up his camera at many creative angles. My personal favorite being an overhead shot of Mr. Stallone and Mr. Momoa as they duke it out in a restroom, with one of them being slammed bodily through the stall door and knocking the whole thing down. The camera is also frequently set with wider shots, so we can see more than just a split-second now and then of a fist hitting what we perceive to be somebody's stomach. There is also a great shot where Mr. Kang punches somebody in the mouth, and the man's spittle is caught in an overhead light and shows up as an array of brilliant white specks. Every sort of weapon from handguns to out-dated firefighter axes is used at some point, and, just as the title hints, there are plenty of moments where somebody catches a muzzle blast clean through the forehead. It's exactly the sort of suspension of disbelief that a movie like this needs: a character will waste three or four shots hitting their target in the chest and stomach when, as they demonstrate subsequently, they planned all along to put a fatal round between the eyes.

There's also lots of fun imagery: such as an underwater shot where Mr. Stallone stares down at the submerged body of a man he just killed, and drops the murder weapon right down on top of us. Or a delightfully funny moment where Jason Momoa's head pops out of a scuzzy pond, like something from a 1950s science-fiction flick.

"Bullet to the Head" was a nice surprise: an out of the blue teaming up of two action-movie veterans. Admittedly, the story needs some refining and there are a couple of moments where a key shot seems to be missing (during a climax, a man falls from a rafter and just as he hits the ground, we cut to another scene. A reaction shot would have evened things out and given the scene a more completed feel). But this is a nice kick-start to the new year; of the three movies I've seen in 2013 thus far—and all have been action-orientated—this is the one I would encourage people to see more than once. I have a hankering to see it again, myself, as a matter of fact.
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"Hansel & Gretel" is a pretty dopey movie, and the 3D just makes it dopier
25 January 2013
The nicest thing about "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is the casting of its two leads. Jeremy Renner, one of the most worthy of rising stars in Hollywood today, has an uncanny ability to slide into any role thrown his way by doing little more than just playing off his own personality. He's got a rugged quality reminiscent of Steve McQueen. Opposite him is Gemma Arterton, who also has a charismatic, easygoing appeal when placed in front of a motion picture camera, and who seems to have built most of her success by appearing in violent medieval-set movies such as this. Had she been a bigger name fifteen years ago, she would have probably wound up somewhere in Peter Jackson's lavish "Lord of the Rings" films, and it's kind of funny she wasn't in last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." And both Mr. Renner and Miss Arterton can, as they demonstrate at one point in the movie, bond on-screen. The highlight of the movie consists of them reuniting in a remote cabin in the woods, embracing each other. They really do seem to love and care about one another.

It's a shame that's the only time they are allowed to show any sense of sibling bondage, as they spend the rest of the movie falling out of trees, getting the tar beaten out of them, and being plastered with exploding body parts. "Hansel & Gretel" follows in the tradition of many contemporary medieval, blood-soaked epics: it's completely overproduced. The dialogue is overwritten and punctuated with about two dozen too many swear words, a lot of the make-up meant to make blood-thirsty witches look intimidating comes across, by contrast, as rather corny. The witches hiss and grunt like comic-book critters. And the movie is more concerned about making silly jokes (a villager popping like a balloon and plastering a pub with his insides while the local fan-boy remarks, "That was awesome!") than creating a sense of adventure. There's a lot of computer-enhanced tweaking to the picture, to make the witches look even uglier, and it too pushes the film's visual presentation overboard. Maybe the filmmakers of the 1970s and 80s medieval pictures would have wallowed in this computer technology if it were available at the time, but their advantage was, oddly enough, not having it in their possession. For it forced them to use their ingenuity and utilize the genuine magic of practical effects such as full-fledged make-up and props. I personally have always been more intimidating by a movie-monster when I realize it's actually there with the actors, not painted in with a computer four months after production ended. The one exception is a big friendly troll named Edward who forms a sort of "King Kong"-esque friendship with Miss Arterton. What the computer artists do with the character's eyes, in particular, is really effective, and I found myself caring a whole lot more about this ten-foot-tall critter than any of the little kids the witches were planning to devour.

Next to the actors, the stuff I liked best consisted of the alternate-reality gadgets. Director Tommy Wirkola has set his story—his first one produced in the United States—in the sort of world that James Whale made popular with "Frankenstein" in the 1930s. He combines technology/life styles into a blend between ancient times and today. Hansel and Gretel hunt witches using crossbows as well as every variety of firearm known to modern-day man. Machine guns, included. If they only had an H-bomb on their hands, they would have really had it made. But that was also part of the fun, showing me a blend of two different worlds. At one point in the film, a temporary sidekick picks up one of their gadgets—a sort of old-fashioned taser gun—uses it to subdue a witch, and remarks, "I like your toys!" I concur.

Even though Hans Zimmer is credited only as the executive producer for the soundtrack and Alti Orvarsson for actually writing the music we hear, one can sense Mr. Zimmer's influence. His scores for Christopher Nolan's three Batman movies can even be heard poking their thump-thump…thump-thump-thump! motifs at certain points. This is not a detractor, as the music, no matter how much it shows its influence, is very good.

I would like to see Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton team up in another, better movie with a better sense of adventure. Yes, a "Hansel & Gretel: Part II" would be welcomed by me, if it improves upon its source. There are many definitions to a good adventure-movie, but the one I utilize is this: how much disbelief can I suspend? Most of these movies raise lots of logistics questions, but if it works on its own terms, I won't ask those questions until the movie's over. But if my interest becomes lost, those questions will start firing away like a machine gun. And they were firing away during "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters." If Mr. Renner needs to inject a medicine into his leg every few hours and he spends most of his life in the wilderness, how does he replenish his supply? Does he ever run out? Why does it take one person a few hours to walk between a town and remote spot in the woods, and yet it takes the experienced Hansel and Gretel until nightfall to get to a cabin about halfway? I'm aware these sorts of questions are not welcomed—and I would have preferred not to ask them during the screening—but my attention span was constantly sputtering.

And I guess I might as well address the 3D. Not being a fan of the process, this go-around also failed to impress me. Even with globs of blood, fiery debris, and bullets launching from the screen. See the film in 2D, for nothing is really going to seem to be missing. "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is a pretty dopey movie, and the 3D just makes it dopier.
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The Fog (1980)
"The Fog" is not a perfect movie, but I did enjoy it very much.
22 January 2013
A fair number of film scholars and enthusiasts would agree that the career of John Carpenter began with tremendous success, culminated with his much-loved 1978 scare picture "Halloween," and has been merely sputtering ever since. I am not one of those people. For me, "Halloween" was a decent yet unremarkable thriller—constantly threatened by some very bad acting—and Carpenter's track record in the years since, at least through the mid-1980s, only grew more impressive, more interesting, and more enjoyable. Hence I feel that his 1980 ghost story "The Fog" is a step up from the bogeyman fable that made him a household name in the horror genre.

One of Carpenter's nicest assets as a director is his choice of subtle subject matter. He tells old-fashioned, simplistic stories without trying to make them over into something profound. After all, "Halloween" was at heart just a bogeyman story with some slight touches of Sigmund Freud thrown in. "Escape from New York" featured some social satire, but was predominately a science-fiction spectacle. And Carpenter's best film, "The Thing," became so intensely frightening because it understood its base as a 'who's who' monster movie. The same applies to "The Fog." There is an explanation as to why the ghosts in this story decide to attack a particular seaside neighborhood on a particular night, but the answer is thrown in our laps right away. Even if you axed the movie's prologue—which Carpenter originally intended—we would learn the motives of these specters before the first hour was up and the big string of attacks had begun.

It would have been all too easy, and perhaps tempting, for Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill to try and weave some mock-profundity out of all this, but thankfully, they did not. As a result, "The Fog" wisely steps away from being an hour and a half of pseudo-intellectual nonsense and plays itself with a straight face. And not for a second is it boring.

The narrative bounces between several of the town's inhabitants, all of whom are represented by very talented actors. "Halloween" star Jamie Lee Curtis takes one of the starring roles and shows a vast improvement in her acting, starring alongside none other than her mother, Janet Leigh. It does seem appropriate; both of these actresses got their start in movies in which they were stalked by deranged killers with butcher knives (Miss Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho") so it must have been a dream come true for Carpenter to put them together. Yet he does not go for the obvious tactic of turning them into cinema pals; they do not even share a two-shot until the final reel. And neither actress is allowed to steal screen time from anybody else; in fact, the only one who comes even close to doing so is the one who was the most interesting: Adrienne Barbeau as the owner of a lighthouse-set radio station, watching and reporting as the big waves of glowing fog wash over her community.

I liked the people in "The Fog" and I liked the ghouls who emerge from the misty walls, but what I enjoyed the most was Carpenter's visual flair as a director: his insistence on shying from ultra-tight close-ups so aplenty in most horror films, the bluish tint he has applied to the lens, how the camera transitions between light and dark settings, and the way he stages bizarre scenarios. There are a number of 'what-is-going-on?' moments in "The Fog," such as water bleeding from a piece of driftwood before suddenly catching fire, and the director stages everything excellently. He gives special attention to these seemingly inexplicable moments. In these moments, the audience forgets this stuff is foreseeable in a spook-story and joins in with the characters, pondering what is happening and what will soon happen. And when the ghouls do appear, Carpenter uses the fog motif and the distance between the specters and the camera efficiently. He appropriately does not give us too much of the villains, thereby rendering them more effective. Less is more.

On the negative side of the equation, I wish Carpenter and Debra Hill had chosen a straight-forward resolution to wrap up their story. As a matter of fact, they start out with one, only to follow in the footsteps of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," where the peaceful yet haunting conclusion is capped off with an out-of-the-blue shocker. It's not bad—especially not the way it's been photographed—it just seems unnecessary. In addition, although the ghosts' motive for returning to this town a hundred years after their deaths is spelled out clearly, the selection of their victims does seem a tad hazy. Once again, I'm glad the screenwriters did not try to make some mock-profound social commentary out of the whole ordeal, but just another sentence or two to explain who they will come after would have helped some. Basically everything else is just nitpicks: was it necessary to have Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins jump into bed a minute after they meet when the rest of the movie really just presents them as two strangers with a developing friendship?

And one does beg the question: why do the ghosts target clustered individuals behind walls and barriers when there's a town gathering smack-dab in the open?

So what if it's not an impeccable masterpiece? I've never been one to let nitpicks go too far, especially when my mood when viewing the picture has been predominately positive. In the case of "The Fog," my mood was overwhelmingly positive; I really enjoyed watching this simplistic ghost fable. Because, once again, it does not make itself out to be anything big, profound, and deep. It just drills as deep into the plot mechanics as it needs to (maybe a tad too shallow, I admit) and lets the director's flair take control of the entertainment value. It's not a perfect movie, but I still liked it very much.
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If this movie had been shown to audiences in the 30s, they probably would have only been dazzled by the fact that it was shot in color.
17 January 2013
From the very onset, "Gangster Squad" has very little in the way of ambition, except to be a modern-day revamping of the Classic Hollywood Era mobster movies of the 1930s and 40s. It's the sort of film James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart would have done for Warner Bros. several decades back. However, if you took this modern-day movie—packed full of fedoras, cigars, exotic dancers in night clubs, and Tommy gun shootouts—and showed it to the audiences of 1940, they would have probably only been dazzled by the fact that it was filmed in fluorescent colors and that when somebody gets shot in the movie, they bleed. Other than that, I have a feeling the gangster movie audiences of yesteryear would have seen right through the movie's thin storytelling, its hurried way of rushing through the narrative, and its lackluster way of pulling up the classic conventions of this genre. And regardless if they wouldn't have been fooled, I wasn't.

Now I have a deep affection for the gangster movies of Classic Hollywood. I personally prefer the old favorites with their deliberately exaggerated characters, smart-aleck dialogue, and familiar filmmaking styles. I also enjoy them better when they are not packed end-to-end with vulgar language, and by 'vulgar language,' I mean the universe where every person of every age in any city only knows one swear word, the one that begins with an F. There is swearing in this new picture, but it's much more restrained. So it understood its own goals. However, the problem with "Gangster Squad" is not that it was made too late in time, but that it takes the clichés and familiarities and does not enact them with a whole lot of development or style. The ingredients are all there; they're just not launching very effectively.

The screenplay by cinema newcomer Will Beall is constantly on the move, jumping from one scenario to the next, but not giving each individual moment a chance to shine. Take for instance, the old-fashioned love story between Ryan Gosling as a Los Angeles cop and Emma Stone as a mobster's favorite moll. Once again, classic plot element just not enacted effectively. Their chemistry consists of this: they see each other in a nightclub, Mr. Gosling tells her flat out that he wants to take her to bed, two scenes later they're underneath the sheets of some flophouse, and after that, they are utterly smitten. Again, all fine given the genre, but not given enough time to flesh itself out. In fact, the scene between the two of them as they lie in bed after sex, with each of them uttering smart-aleck dialogue, gets off so strong that it really becomes infuriating that we leave the scene just when it starts to get going.

The cast of "Gangster Squad" is packed with talent, and yet most of the performances still misfire. Good of an actor as he is, Mr. Gosling is too much of a 21st century actor for the hotshot, flirtatious cop-role and he is too open-eyed and baby-faced for us to really believe that he could last long at all in a crime-riddled city like this. There is also Giovanni Ribisi, who looks silly with his slicked-back hairdo and paper-thin mustache, and seems utterly bewildered by all the period detail around him. Even Sean Penn, playing none other than Mickey Cohen himself, is uncharacteristically out of his element. Mr. Penn's performance consists mostly of hammy outbursts and temper tantrums, both of which prompted some unwanted laughs from me. The key element to a great movie-gangster is to get the audience to be afraid of him and what he might do. And yet even though this guy presents himself as an experienced boxer-turned-killer and orders the deaths of several people (including one where a man is torn in half between two cars) I never felt particularly intimidated by him. There are three exceptional performances. One is Robert Patrick, playing the gunslinger cop. The second is Emma Stone, who is charming and sexy as usual, despite the underwritten role supplied to her and the random twist-of-faith she has to perform in the third act. And finally, there is Josh Brolin himself, who fits his tough-cop role to a tee. With his square jaw, smile-scare expression, and squinted stare, he really does seem to belong in those period clothes. And when he takes matters into his own hands, there is a feeling of unpredictability. This is the guy I would be intimidated by. I just wish his character's personal life was more like that of Philip Marlowe, not tied to the drippy subplot of a wife who's expecting.

There is one more person who understands what he's supposed to be doing, and that is the cinematographer, Oscar-winner Dion Beebe. The art direction is exceptionally strong, but Mr. Beebe is the one who makes it look so great with all those fluorescent streaks of light. So he is not to blame when the director, Ruben Fleischer, loses focus of how he should be handling everything. This is set in one of those movie-worlds in which the sound of a black-powder gunshot cannot be heard by anybody. Not in the same building, not even through an open window. Ironically enough, these gangsters and cops are less sensible and observant than their 1940 counterparts. At least their ears were open enough to respond when a shotgun blast rang out down the hall. And therein lies the fatal flaw of "Gangster Squad." It captures the look of the old mob movie formula, but not the feel. No matter how much it wants to. But I do have the admit, I was pretty flattered to finally see an action movie where the heroes rig a truck to explode and when it goes off, they actually turn around to make sure they're not about to be pummeled by a chunk of debris. They don't ignore it like a bunch of brain-dead fools.
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Looper (2012)
Second-hand action scenes prevent it from being a masterpiece, but Rian Johnson's film is appreciatively clever and packed with intricate details.
10 January 2013
The biggest strike counting against "Looper" is that its director, Rian Johnson, is not yet much of an action specialist. And although this new movie has been raved up and appraised for its admittedly clever and intricate ideas involving time travel, the bits and pieces consisting of shootouts, brutal beatings, and a little boy whose temper tantrums result in telepathic explosions are a big part of what Mr. Johnson hopes to accomplish. Now the action scenes are not horrible, but they are not particularly exciting either. Mr. Johnson stages his misc en scene in awkward places, instructs his actors to move too slowly, and the camera is frequently searching for carnage it cannot find—usually because the low-key lighting is too heavy for it to see anything. There is even a scene where a truck gets flipped forward and we just barely see part of the vehicle in a subsequent wide-shot before it disappears off the edge of the screen. Maybe it was staged to come out like that, but I think the filmmakers just got lucky.

So that's the regrettable news: "Looper" is not the masterpiece I hoped it to be. The good news, however, is that its story is appreciatively clever and very detailed. Mr. Johnson, who composed the original screenplay, has devised a setup that Christopher Nolan would probably appreciate. Time travel does not merely exist in his world; it has elaborately detailed limits and restrictions. The story gets off on the right foot with its protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, an actor I never get tired of seeing) telling us how it all works. Because he exists in the present and the people he's hired to murder and teleported to him from the future, we cannot see the actual time travel process, but he's been informed of how it works and he shares his knowledge with us. Going back to Christopher Nolan, "Looper" reminded me of "Inception" and how in that movie, Leonardo DiCaprio filled in the blanks. This is appropriate, since "Looper" wants to be a little edgier than just a simplistic, corny action exploitation picture.

Save for a completely unneeded flash-forward sequence (in which we see how Mr. Gordon-Leavitt grows up to be a weary-looking Bruce Willis), the movie is subtle and restrained in detailing the future. It stays in the present, and when a man-to-be-murdered is transported into the present, there is no ostentatious, glowing special effects. No bright flashes, no streaks of computer-generated lights. Just a cleverly utilized jump cut accompanied with a subtle whooshing sound effect.

Some people are destined to be angered, and some have, by the portrayal of a child in this picture. In short, the little boy featured in this movie is blessed with a gift. He's like John Connor from James Cameron's "Terminator" movies, except he is destined for bad things instead of saving the world. In regards to the young actor's performance, I was not all that taken with Pierce Gagnon's dialogue delivery, but was utterly stunned by his stunning use of expressions. When this kid puts on a frown, he looks genuinely scary. Even if he did not have mind powers strong enough to detonate a house or rip a man to shreds, you would not want to be caught near him. The only fault to come out of this is that it begins to contradict what Rian Johnson's screenplay would like us to resonate with. Without giving away too much of the plot's third act, the movie tries to make a point that a person's companionship during childhood—the people he or she grows up under—will determine his future. All fine, except this kid is portrayed as so temperament prone and so psychologically unstable that I found it hard to believe that anybody, even a teary-eyed Emily Blunt, could ever reshape his future.

All of the performances are generally good. Mr. Gordon-Leavitt, playing Bruce Willis's younger self, is exceptionally effective. The make-up applied to heighten his resemblance to Mr. Willis is a good starting point, but he also mimics the expressions and idiosyncratic tendencies: the drawl in the voice, the lifting of the eyebrows while maintain a squint, and so on. Mr. Willis is his usual self, and it is nice to see him tackling the role of a morally weaker man afraid not for his life, but somebody else's. Emily Blunt, no stranger to praise from me, is also strong in her role.

Had "Looper" made some tweaks to its third act and Mr. Johnson had recruited some expertise to assist him in coordinating the action scenes, it probably would have reached the heights of excellence it has strived for. But as it is, it is a perfectly fine movie worth seeing and I did enjoy it more on the second viewing. Rian Johnson does have a lot of imagination and cleverness and to complain that his nice, perfectly good movie is not a masterpiece—considering this is still very early in his career—does seem a little silly.
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Prometheus (I) (2012)
I do have a desire to see the movie again and pay closer attention to the little details.
10 January 2013
I've put off writing about "Prometheus" for a while, because I wanted to be absolutely certain on where I stood in regard to the much-deliberated question of whether or not it works. And, if it does work, on what level? And in what way? This Ridley Scott production, a prequel to his 1979 horror masterpiece "Alien," has caused a bigger intellectual, fan-based firestorm of opinion than any other movie released in 2012. So I decided to first let the flames, if you will, simmer down and approach the movie, having heard both sides of the argument, with an open mind. Ironically enough, and perhaps to nobody's surprise, I wound up smack-dab in the middle in terms of my reaction.

The best way to approach "Prometheus" is as its own stand-alone premise. I have the feeling that's what Ridley Scott wanted to do: he probably only tied it to the "Alien" franchise for better box office assurance; hey, the guy's got to make money to make more movies, after all. He might have also felt the way I did when I first heard about this project: was a prequel even needed? Did we really care who dispatched that signal that drew the inter-stellar space crew of the first "Alien" movie to that dark, wind-lashed planet? Did we care what the fossilized extra-terrestrial seated behind the chair in that big spaceship look like before his insides exploded? And first and foremost, did we really care just where those slimy, bug-like monsters that terrorized Sigourney Weaver in four different movies originate? Me personally, not at all. I was much happier letting my imagination fill the blanks.

But that's okay, as far as "Prometheus" is concerned, for it only provides a handful of those answers. In fact, in regards to that fossilized alien's origins, it only teases us with an answer; it never actually provides one. Just when we think we've figured it out, we realize we've got wait for "Prometheus Part II." What this film would really like to do is be a sort of modern-day "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's more concerned about philosophy, about religion and anti-religion, and the never-ending debate on man and his relationship to the universe. And on that level—the raising of philosophical questions—"Prometheus" is a success. It also has a very strong sense of majesty and wonder about what lies beyond the atmosphere of planet earth. Whereas the only mindset of Alien was downbeat terror and discomfort, "Prometheus" persists in throwing big streams of splendor and astonishment. When the characters of the movie, a team of scientists and military protectors along with an android, start venturing into that big cavern on some remote, uninhabited planet and start awing at the cave drawings, the skeletons, and the architecture, I was hanging my jaw along with them.

In fact, I enjoyed the sense of science-fiction wonder—the scientists believe they are visiting the homes of an alien race that genetically manufactured mankind—that I wish the movie had not gone the way it did in the second half. I did not want violence, I did not want encounters with alien life forms. It was all fine—and one sequence involving a self-ordered dissection to remove an alien parasite was genuinely scary—but I was happier when Mr. Scott was simply probing questions. Again, it really does feel he wanted to make this picture with no franchise-strings attached.

Maybe that is also the reason why the characters of "Prometheus" do not stand out as individuals, as people I could get involved with. They were merely stick-figures: the scientist who places knowledge before safety, the stern military professionals, the foul-mouthed mechanics, the emotionless robot devoted only to his programmed mission, the cocky pilot and his crew. They also seem to come from all corners of the earth; every other crew member is a minority. To make one more seemingly irrelevant comparison to "Alien," the cast of that movie were also, fundamentally, stick figures. But they were stick figures breathed full of life by sharp writing and strong performances. Each person had a personality that was distinctly their own. But there are no fleshed-out people in "Prometheus." Late in the third act, the ship's captain is told by his Asian helmsman not to take the controls, and they laugh over the remark that he cannot fly to save his life. Just a hint for a dynamic that is never explored or dealt with on any level before. There is also a third-act twist regarding another endless question (what if a man could live forever) that pushes itself into the movie too quickly and ends itself much too soon to leave any sense of resolution or, in this case, futility.

But this is the ultimate strength of "Prometheus": as long as you don't demand answer-after-answer, it is a movie you will want to see again. This review, after just one viewing, might be too little and too soon. I do have a desire to see the film again and to pay more attention to the little details, the small jabs of dialogue that probably contain more potency and irony than I gave credit for at first, and how moments connect to one another. And it is also worth admiring for Ridley Scott's flair: his ability to convey a sense of scale and epic proportion so sadly rare in movies today.
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Lincoln (2012)
This year, the Academy Awards will be drooling over a movie that is worthy of getting the gold
7 January 2013
About a month before the release of Steven Spielberg's newest movie "Lincoln," one of my fellow students in the film course I was taking at the time made what he perceived to be a very funny joke. We were discussing the pre-release hype for the picture and he, obviously not having seen it, said he was going to give away two spoilers as to what would happen: the 13th amendment would be passed and the president would wind up being shot in the head. The only profundity to come out of my colleague's remark (which only got token-chuckles from a few other students in the room) would, ironically enough, tie into one of the movie's ultimate strengths: the way it relies upon and bases its power upon the audience's pre-existing knowledge of its subject matter.

Like any audience member over the age of ten, I knew walking in that Abraham Lincoln was the president who oversaw the end of the Civil War, the abolishment of slavery, and who ended up dead before the American South underwent Reconstruction. Mr. Spielberg, the director, and Tony Kushner, the screenwriter, obviously expected this of their audience, hence why their immensely powerful movie plays not as a history lesson but as a psychological study of what President Lincoln and the people he was associated with underwent during those heated years of 19th century America. We already know that slavery ends and the president dies, so what's the point of talking down on us about it? After all, this is not the story of some obscure man, but the most-loved president of the United States.

Mr. Kushner's screenplay gains most of its strength in the backstage material: the politicians from both sides debating with each other, trying to win over the other side. This is a movie that is equally reliant upon supporting roles as well as the titular lead. As acted by Daniel Day-Lewis (virtually unrecognizable underneath all the make-up), Lincoln is presented as a cipher. An emotionally inspiring and coercive cipher, but a cipher nonetheless. And what he ciphers are the actions and reactions of the people underneath him: a sobering reminder that nothing in dictator-free politics, good or bad, can be achieved by one person alone. He makes the decisions and gives the oft-quoted speeches, but does not actually work the miracles himself. In fact, he's shown to be somewhat ignorant of what's going on around him. He knows there is a war and he knows that it is resulting in the deaths of many, but it is not until late in the third act, when he personally looks over the results of the Petersburg Campaign that he understands just how horrible things have become. Mr. Day-Lewis also makes the right acting choices by being restrained, not going for the cheap teary-eyed gimmicks for sympathy. So much more is accomplished with so little.

One of the best performances in the movie is the one by Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Thaddeus Stevens as a withering, somewhat arrogant dreamer forced to deal several blows to his pride (in a marvelous courtroom sequence regarding the interpretation of slavery and freedom) to see an issue even opened up for debate. And this is just one example. It is refreshing to see a movie about achievement in which the victory is obtained by a team as opposed to just one man. In the passing of the 13th Amendment (again, giving this away is no spoiler, contrary to my former colleague's would-be funny remark), I felt a big wave of emotion rushing through me. But it was not emotion from having seen the amendment pass (as I knew it would happen all along) but as a sort of reminder of one of my country's most important landmarks.

If only I could feel that good about what politicians in American do today….

Some of the opening segments of "Lincoln" are a little stagnant. Good-looking as the interior art direction (White House scenes) is, I was beginning to grow tired of seeing every political and intellectual conversation being set in an ostentatious, glowing room with the camera zooming and dollying from spot to spot. Surely Lincoln must have had a few interesting powwows with somebody in the outdoors. I was also growing a little weary of every scene culminating with Honest Abe telling somebody a story. One of his anecdotes resounds with a very funny joke about George Washington, but for the sake of pacing, I would have recommended Mr. Spielberg to excise it and cut straight to the subsequent sequence of Lincoln being informed of the war casualties. For the former scene was only filling space before the latter.

However, as the movie progresses (and many of the scenes shift to the outdoors) the momentum begins to pick up. And the silent stretches are even more fascinating as the dialogue-packed monologues. For Mr. Spielberg has yet to lose his ultimate gift: his acknowledgement that film-stories are told visually with the camera. That we can get dialogue from books and plays, but only movies can give us moving pictures.

"Lincoln" is not one of Steven Spielberg's masterpieces. The narrative structure is a tad uneven (Lincoln does not seem to have a real connection to either of his sons in the picture) and, again, the start is a little slow. But the film does have plenty in it to admire. After all, it goes on for 150 minutes and is much more gripping than any of Michael Bay's "Transformers" pictures, which were just as long and packed end-to-end with ear-stuffing explosions. This could very well be the best picture about Abe Lincoln's life since John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" from 1940 and will most certainly be drooled all over come time for the Academy Awards. This time, however, they will be drooling over a movie that is worthy of getting the gold.
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Testament (1983)
"Testament" has the flow of a memoir, but one in which the writer frequently forgot to write about what they were experiencing and what little they truly understood
5 January 2013
"Testament," a bold and occasionally brilliant film about the consequences of a nuclear attack, really does have the feel and mindset of a memoir. More specifically, a memoir written by somebody who might or might not have survived a tragic event they never fully understood. One of the movie's surefire touches of genius lies in the fact that its narrating protagonist, a commonplace small-town mother very well-played by Jane Alexander, never learns who triggered the nuclear war that wrecks life as she knows it. In spite of what the movie posters would have us believe, we never see the actual attack—only a bright series of flashes near the beginning. Afterwards, we only observe the after-effects: the radiation sickness, the townspeople turned on one another, the cemeteries and backyards filling up with coffins. In many of these moments, "Testament" has some great power.

However, as a memoir-mindset, it also suffers from a patchy narrative. If we want to consider it like a memoir, then it was one in which the writer only jotted down their experiences in the barest of detail and only once every few weeks. I am completely appreciative that the makers of the film never spoiled their intentions (they never tell us who is responsible for the attack) but I wanted more of the consequences. I wanted to get to know the protagonist better, I wanted to understand her relationship with her three children, I wanted more of a sense of loneliness when her missing husband never returns home. There are a number of characters who succumb to radiation poisoning (we are told several hundred) but only one death registers an emotional impact. The others certainly attempt to make us feel, but I could not stir any empathy, as I felt I had not come to know these people as human beings.

Running down the casualty lists in "Testament" is like scrolling through a list of casualties from a tragic event long before you were born: I certainly felt sorry for what happened to them, but there was no particular level of sympathy from one name to the other. Maybe that says something about me as a human being, but I never really had the impression that I could imagine being in the middle of it myself. In spite of Miss Alexander's wonderful performance, there is not much of a character there. At the end of "Testament," I wanted to know about her struggles and get involved; I wanted to feel heartbroken that she waited so long and so futilely for a loved one to finally return home. Even an attempted suicide scene, something I would expect of a situation like in this movie, could not bring me to care much.

To the movie's credit, it is very well-produced. Lynne Littman, the director, has a solid instinct for placing her camera and instructing actors how to move, where to stand, and how to perform. She also has a very subtle, unpretentious style: something absolutely necessary given the movie's intentions. And the cinematography by Steven Poster (artfully drab with a washed-out lens trick) is absolutely lovely to behold. It just goes to show that the camera does not need to be flourished with strobes and bright colors for a scene to be beautiful. And there are some scenes of great power: an opening moment where a father and son have a bike race, an extremely touching scene where a mother and her daughter, both of whom expect to die soon, have an honest and open conversation about sex. And the movie's occasional usage of Super 8 home-video footage is a great touch. The music by James Horner is very good (it has a haunting quality reminiscent of the soundtrack from "Blade Runner") but is not heard nearly enough. There are a number of very fine moments in which some subtle, in-the-background notes would be really appreciative, to bring the whole sequence full circle. That just might be the movie's problem: "Testament" never seems to come all the way around with its intentions. Despite its artistically restrained mindset and no matter how much I would like to have been moved and had my thoughts provoked by it, "Testament" did not register much of an emotional impact for me.
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It is also a testament to the discipline, as well as the talents, of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen
7 December 2012
"Clash of the Titans" is the quintessential fantasy put on film. From start to finish, it is a delightfully entertaining little extravaganza packed full of alternate-reality spectacle and wonder. It is also a testament to the discipline, as well as the talents, of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, who is both at his most skillful and his most mature levels here. In most of his movies, it is his stop-motion animated creatures and worlds that draw people. Take, for example, "Jason and the Argonauts," regarded as, I feel incorrectly, his best picture. Whenever I watch that picture, it is never for the thin characterizations and less-than-charismatic acting. Hence why Harryhausen's hydra, skeletons, and other weird and fantastic figures took center-stage consistently in that movie.

However, even though "Clash of the Titans" contains probably twice as many monsters as "Jason and the Argonauts," they actually play second-fiddle to the flesh-and-blood people. And the results are actually kind of refreshing. For not only is the screenplay just as interested in the character as in the monsters, but the people, both on earth and Mount Olympus, are interesting in their own small way. The creatures—which include Medusa the Gorgon, a mechanical owl built by the gods, a two-headed wolf, a giant sea monster, among others—are part of the fantastic world of Greek mythology, but it is Harry Hamlin, as Perseus, who runs away with the show.

Hamlin, a better actor than often given credit for, is smart in the way he portrays Perseus. He goes not go for a dramatic, over-the-top performance; he realizes that he's not in a stage production of "Hamlet." He consciously underplays the performance, somehow getting off so much charisma and gusto without over-emoting as would be the tendency. Hamlin is instantly likable from the start, as he ought to be, and carries us through the fantastic journey to save the princess Andromeda (also well-played by Judi Bowker) from the vengeance of a jealous goddess. Hamlin and Bowker have a delightfully old-fashioned romance together on-film, one that does not go into too much detail, as too much detail would seem unnecessary. After all, this is a fantasy about what the Greeks imagined life before them, not a deep, philosophical study about the meaning of life. The other human performances are good in the context of a mythology film. After all, mythology usually never gave us much in the way of character backgrounds and personalities. The screenplay and actors realize this and make the best of it all. I particularly liked Burgess Meredith as the quirky, wise storyteller who helps explain the background and context to the audience as well as the other characters. And as for the people on Mount Olympus, well, what more could you want other than to see Laurence Olivier dominating the sets as Zeus? Olivier much more efficiently captures the sense of semi-tyranny and temperamental power than what we got from Niall MacGinnis in "Jason the Argonauts."

But what is so special about "Clash of the Titans" is the way it whole-heartedly believes in its own world and the sense of spectacle and majesty it evokes. When we first hear Laurence Rosenthal's music at the opening, there is a spell-binding sense of majesty in "Clash of the Titans." Everything, even a simple landscape shot of Perseus and the other heroes riding on horseback against an early morning sky, has a spine-tingling sensation to it. And, despite the temptation that surely would have been ever-present during production, the movie does not condescend into self-parody. The only comic relief—and it is completely deliberate—is a mechanical owl named Bubo. Now questions have always risen whether Bubo or the "Star Wars" character R2-D2 came out first ("Clash of the Titans" was released after "Star Wars," but had been in production since the late 70s), but regardless, Bubo is insistently charming and funny: a klutzy little thing with a big 'heart,' I guess you could say. As soon as he falls from a tree branch in his introductory scene, he's won our hearts. And seeing him whipped down from his perch by a villain later in the film leaves us gasping. We like this little mechanical critter.

The other creatures have their sense of majesty as well. The best of all being the Kraken, the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda. Harryhausen pulls all of his special effects skills together in this marvelous climax. And the scene takes its time padding out: the Kraken takes its time in its attack, menacing Andromeda and the people watching with snarls and lashes of its four powerful arms. It seems to be enjoying the panic it causes, and Rosenthal's music, heavy with trombones, punches our eardrums and raises our pulses.

The special effects are overall very impressive, with only a few dreadful lapses. But none concern the stop-motion effects, only the rotoscope. The flat, quirky silhouetted bird we see playing beneath the opening credits is frighteningly amateur and furthermore, not even necessary. If the filmmakers were wise to enough to save an extra print of the footage, they would have been better just cutting it out and letting the audience fill in the blanks. A couple of shots from a scene where the Kraken demolishes a city, with optically tricked-in water pounding upon victims, also has a staged feeling to it.

But those are small lapses. Most of the effects are absolutely brilliant—Harryhausen at his absolute pinnacle—and contribute to the movie's sense of wonder and spectacle. Now Harryhausen films have always been a part of my life, ever since childhood. My adoration has not fizzled over the years, even if weaknesses show through sometimes. But "Clash of the Titans" has aged astronomically well, and it is, as far as I am concerned, the very best film Harryhausen ever worked on. And again, his most disciplined, for he allows the people to take center-stage over his monsters.
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True Grit (2010)
"True Grit" is not as hauntingly profound as it would like to be.
5 December 2012
Back in early 2010, when the trailers and ads for "True Grit" were being released, I started developing mixed feelings as to what we could expect. On one hand, I was very interested, for even though "True Grit" had been put on-screen once before, and quite successfully, it was a story worth retelling. Because new approaches could be taken, new moods could be attempted, new styles could be applied. The 1969 version of "True Grit" is a minor classic in its own right, but it's not an impeccable masterpiece like "Vertigo" or "Casablanca" where a remake would only leave you spreading your hands wondering: why did they even bother? So I had some high hopes. The black cloud I saw, however, was spinning over the head of the movie's much-hyped young star, Hailee Steinfeld, playing a precocious teenager who recruits a one-eyed marshal to track down her father's murderer in the old west. I was not about to judge her from clips in trailers, but Steinfeld struck me as out of place and bewildered, not familiar with the camera enough to pull the job off well.

Ten months later, the movie left me disappointed. But not for the reason I feared. By contrast, I was kicking myself for my predictions before, as Steinfeld's performance was not only good, it was exceptional, and one of the few watchable elements in this pretentiously longwinded western. "True Grit" was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, two admittedly talented directors from Minnesota, who have become loved and drooled over by just about every movie-lover except me. For me, "True Grit" contains just about everything I've liked and disliked about their previous endeavors. What I liked: strong craftsmanship and endless ambition. What I disliked: bloated pacing, inanely longwinded and talky dialogue, and dead air as filler between scenes.

Hence why I have seldom liked their movies. To deny that these two men have instincts with staging their camera would be foolish, but I've repeatedly questioned those who have written them off as profound commentators of American mythology and morals. The Coen brothers do not just tell stories, they attempt to bury subtext and symbolic commentary into their narrative. In the case of "True Grit," violence in the old west and how, beginning with the dime novels, you might say, most Americans got it all wrong. That it was not a glorious, fun-filled time. This is a movie filled with unpredictable characters, anti-heroes, and villains who are more stupid and half-drunk than diabolical. That's certainly a good ambition. But by the end of it all, I never felt any big resonance about what the movie had been saying, and, frankly, that Clint Eastwood had handled the same subject matter so much better in, ironically, another western called "Unforgiven." "True Grit" is not as haunting as it would like to be.

The reason? It all goes to the screenplay. The talky, ostentatious, and dulled-out screenplay. As with previous Coen brothers movies, the script for "True Grit" is utterly in love with the sound of its voice. Dialogue stretches on and on for unendurable lengths of time, wearing out all attempted profundity or attempted humor, and leaving me wondering just what was all the fuss and commotion about. Take, for example, the courtroom scene where Jeff Bridges, as the one-eyed marshal, defends his decision to shoot two people dead during an arrest. The scene is played partially for laughs and partially to hint that bad times are ahead. But the pacing has feet of clay, it staggers slowly: in other words, it feels like a real courtroom event. The actor playing the defense lawyer, overacting as though in a kabuki theater, poses longwinded questions and Jeff Bridges mumbles back in a tone so low you can hardly understand him.

And that's the overall tone of the movie. What the characters talk about is not so interesting that it deserves so much attention. Chats around campfires, and there are so many of them, maintain that drag-and-dribble motif. Crucial moments whisk by without registering an appropriate impact, and unimportant stuff, such as the longwinded dialogue in the courtroom or that insanely bad and unfunny scene with a 'doctor' wearing a bear coat, takes its time in leaving the screen. And the dialogue, quite frankly, is a near self-parody. Since when would an uneducated, dumb-punk cowboy say something as articulate as "I must think over my position and how I may improve it." Or, would a smart little twerp of a girl trapped in the wilderness really say to her rescuer: "Oh, Mr. La Beouf, how did you happen to come by here?"

Usually, the Coen brothers can boast about good acting in their films. Not this time around. Steinfeld is very good. The other exception is the underrated Barry Pepper, playing the leader of an outlaw gang. As for the rest of the cast: Josh Brolin gives an uncharacteristically dull performance, playing the punk-cowboy as though he had autism, and making him seem like a self-parody as opposed to a dangerously drunken idiot. Matt Damon, also normally a reliable actor, is completely lost and misguided in this type of film. He lacks the physique and completely lacks the charisma. He's not interesting in the role of a Texas Ranger. But worst—and most shocking of all—is the awful performance by Jeff Bridges. Bridges, who is a wonderful actor and did an outstanding job playing Wild Bill Hickock in 1995, resorts here to mumbling behind a stone-faced expression with no concentration. It does not come across as an unpredictable man who could snap at any second, it comes across as Jeff Bridges hamming his way through a movie. The only thing consistent about his role is the way he reminds us how much better John Wayne played the same part in 1969. Yes, John Wayne was just playing John Wayne, but that was a performance in and of itself. And it was interesting. This was not.
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Despite its promising start and good drawing, "Tom and Jerry: The Movie" is an absolute thud
27 November 2012
The surmounting lists of objections to "Tom and Jerry: The Movie" have been understandably consistent: the famous cartoon cat and mouse actually start talking, they go on good behavior, do not chase each other around with every makeshift club or projectile known, and most of the narrative consists not of what we usually get from them in a seven or eight-minute cartoon. I had some objections to the material here as well, but only on this level: the way it was done. In actuality, I am all for the idea of trying something new with these characters, even if they had been doing the same stuff for forty-some years. After all, if the movie's going to the last 90 minutes, unless the filmmakers really know what they're doing, just seeing the cat and mouse torment each other will lose its spark eventually. So I'm marginally grateful they tried something new.

The opening ten minutes of "Tom and Jerry: The Movie" effectively capture the charm of the long-running cartoon shorts, utilizing silent humor and cartoon violence to a gut-splitting max. It's also fun looking at the drawing style, reminiscent of the 1960s where everything exists without excessive detail. The houses are one or two stories, have a single tree in the yard, and surrounded by a white picket fence. And when Tom and Jerry venture into the streets, there is a wonderful, 1960s feeling in the jazz music score playing in the background.

What I did not like after this point was not the new ideas, but—and this goes back to my initial statement—the way these new ideas were executed. I do like the tone of the voices given to Tom and Jerry, with the latter being given a sort of husky, little boy tone, just as I always imagined him. I always pictured Jerry as a little kid and Tom as sort of a twenty-something who never quite grew up. And I did not mind so much that the plot unravels to become more of a "The Rescuers" remake, with the cat and mouse befriending an orphan girl wanting to escape the clutches of her domineering aunt. In fact, if Tom and Jerry had stuck with the girl, and been allowed to take center-stage more often, the idea could have worked. Instead, they end up playing second-fiddle, disappearing for obnoxiously long stretches of time, and the little girl, Robyn (though sweetly voiced by the talented Anndi McAfee) is a complete bore.

As a result, the story becomes insufferably slow starting around the thirty-minute mark.

What I could not stand at all in this movie—the one thing I thought could not work in the least bit—were the songs. I personally do not connect musical numbers with a Tom and Jerry cartoon, even if it is feature-length. But the crushing blow is just how incredibly awful these musical numbers are, and how they become progressively worse as the movie progresses. The first one, in which Tom and Jerry are unsuccessfully talked into trying to be friends, is lame and bad enough as it is. The second one, following much too closely afterward and sung by a gang of not-amusing alley cats who stop the story cold in its tracks, is even worse. The remaining count of songs, if memory serves me correct, is three or four. Each one the cognitive equivalent of sandpaper being rubbed on your scalp. Even if these songs were bland and not horrendous, they would still drag the movie to its doom because there are so many—too many. Even most musicals don't plant this many sing-a-longs in such narrow proximity to each other.

Now, in all fairness, the drawing style is beautiful. It effectively captures the spirit of the 1960s cartoons while updating it at the same time. The colors are vibrant and pretty, everything has a lot of gorgeous detail, the movements seem old-fashioned and yet contemporary at the same time—if that makes any sense to the reader; you really need to see the movie to understand (or just look at some silent clips of it, as I would recommend). The director was Phil Roman, who made his fame in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in continuing the animated "Peanuts" cartoons after Bill Melendez decided to stop. He's got a good style, knowing how to pace shots and sequences. But it all goes back to what Pauline Kael, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and so many other movie critics and filmmakers have said about directors and screenplays: the latter is, in so many ways, more important. The director can have as much style as he wants, but without an interesting story and some firm ground to walk on, no matter his still, the picture will probably end up collapsing. And despite its promising start and good drawing, "Tom and Jerry: The Movie" is an absolute thud.
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Casino (1995)
Even though the technique is pure, the storytelling seems half-baked and uninterested in itself.
26 November 2012
The opening 30 minutes or so of "Casino" embodies everything that I adore about pre-21st century Martin Scorsese cinema, most particularly the excellent craftsmanship he seems to have lost his grip in on recent years. As the picture begins, we get this fabulous quasi-documentary narrative with Robert De Niro, as the film's protagonist—nobody with any sense of morality can call a mob figure a hero—providing us all the details. What he's been given to say is fascinating, and the way Scorsese coordinates his camera is superb. The technique is pure, the edits are crisp and clean (there are none of those horrendous, in-your-face jump cuts that stabbed his 2006 film "The Departed" clean through the heart), and the amount of detailed information presented in an entertaining way. Scorsese and his co-screenwriter, Nicolas Pileggi, both of whom collaborated on the 1990 gangster masterpiece "GoodFellas," are certainly to be commended as researchers. In this fabulous first half-hour, they know just when and where to tell us data about how the mob ran a Las Vegas casino and when to show us. They tell us who watches who during a big gambling night, and show us, in splendid detail, how to get rid of a cardsharp by giving him a bogus heart attack.

Unfortunately, for me, once Sharon Stone, as a prostitute who sets the protagonist's heart aflame, enters the picture, everything begins to drag. This is not a negative reflection on Sharon Stone's performance. Not only is this her best piece of work that I'm aware of—I personally do not think she's untalented as an actress—but she gives the best performance of the entire movie. There isn't a bad performance, really, but she does dominate everybody else in "Casino." So it's not her acting that wears out the movie for me; it's the pretentious and uninteresting melodrama that follows in her tracks.

The pseudo-romantic dynamic between De Niro and Stone is, at heart, just an old-fashioned gangster-and-his-moll story, with the feisty woman first being pushed around, then pushing back, standing up to the boyfriend with the gun. Why does this dynamic go wrong? Because the screenplay tries to make something monumentally important out of it all. It tries to go deep, explore the psyches of both characters, takes them out of the casino and into the deserts and apartments of Las Vegas, and attempts to bring a psychologically fascinating angle to their relationship. Here, it completely falls apart, and the remaining two and a half hours of the movie—the middle in particularly—really begins to drag. The other problem with this relationship is that De Niro's character is not interesting when the movie tries to explore his depth as a person. He's much more interesting in the old-fashioned personality of the 'rough-and-touch, silent but deadly' casino manager who, save for his cameras, supervises everything that goes in his establishment. Once he gets all mucky and muggy with Stone, the fascination is wiped clean from the slate. As was my ability to stay interested.

I wish that "Casino" had stayed inside the casinos and not gone into the deserts, apartments, swamps, of outer Las Vegas. For me, the heart of the movie was contained in that big, luxurious building with the omnipresent colors. And I do not see why the movie could not have just stayed there and told its story from that setting, venturing outside only when necessary. Obviously, it's based on true events, but since the true events, as told on screen, become this dull, what's the point? Even Joe Pesci, essentially repeating his performance from "GoodFellas," seems to have little purpose outside the casino. There's some promising sequences with him forcing De Niro to come down in the middle of the night to get him fifty million-dollar chips for a gambling rage, but, once again, once the story leaves the casino and starts getting involved with all the other stuff, it goes downhill.

But to the filmmakers' credit, having Pesci narrate part of the story does make his denouement all the more surprising. I will not give away exactly what happens, but the way things unfold toward the end, with Pesci's narration almost completely eradicating De Niro's, really does leave the audience unexpected for what eventually turns out. It's a brilliant touch.

I admired the physical production values of "Casino" as much as any great-looking movie I've ever seen, and Scorsese's flair as a director is very impressive. But even though the technique is pure, the storytelling seems half-baked and uninterested in itself. And that's the coldest feeling a movie can possibly give you. Whether it's representational or not, when you get the notion that the filmmaker lost interest in the story he was telling, it's all for nothing.
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The stage-originated dialogue sings with intelligence, wit, and an easy transition to the screen
26 November 2012
There is a lot to admire about Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," and I do hold the film with a great deal of admiration and respect. However, what I adore about the movie the most (more than the cinematography, the suspense, the acting, and even the direction) is the work by screenwriter Frederick Knott. Mr. Knott based the screenplay for "Dial M for Murder" on his successful stage production, which I have never seen, but am told contains almost all of the words we hear in the film. And the words are music to the ears. They sing with intelligence, wit that Mr. Hitchcock certainly found attractive, and, best of all, an easy transition to the screen. Many times when a stage production goes to film, as far as I am concerned, the results, even if good, are uneven. Frequently, the dialogue and restricted set space allowed tend to give off the impression of a filmed play, not a cinematic experience. Another Hitchcock film, 1948's "Rope," though valiant, interesting, and successful, attempted this and suffered from this difficult struggle.

But the dialogue, put on film here, is exceptional. I write this review having seen "Dial M for Murder" two or three times and wanting to see it once again. Many reviewers, myself included, have tried watching films with the sound off. I want to try the opposite. I want to close my eyes and just listen to the dialogue because it's so strong. The MacGuffin conversation at the beginning, with a perfectly cast Ray Milland blackmailing a perfectly cast Anthony Dawson into murdering a perfectly cast Grace Kelly is brilliantly written by Mr. Knott. It was clearly from a stage production, as it explains the plot background in great detail, and goes on for the better part of twenty minutes. Both men are fleshed out, giving us their personalities and individual tendencies. And even though "Dial M for Murder" pretty much stays on just one small set (an apartment in London, in which we see mostly the foyer, a little of the bedroom, and just a glimpse of the kitchen), what happens there is so fascinating that we do not really want to venture out into the city.

And that is just the setup. The dialogue remains insistently interesting and clever throughout the picture. It also has that subtle, dark sense of humor that Alfred Hitchcock was keen on. It also has the ironic touches, such as when Mr. Milland, as the jealous husband, kisses his unfaithful wife on the night she is to be murdered, and tells her: "Goodbye, my dear." The audience, having been given every single little detail about the scheme and how it is to unfold, cringes with a dark realization that Mr. Hitchcock might just go through with Mr. Milland's plot. Mr. Hitchcock, as the director, is also due tremendous credit for his trademark of creating tension. Screenwriter Knott brilliantly lays out for the audience, not the victim, how the murder will go through, but Mr. Hitchcock's camera dutifully follows everything as the scheme goes along. And, before we realize it, if something starts to go wrong, we become scared and tense. And you can imagine my guilt when I realized I was feeling scared that a plan to murder someone just might not go through. It's Mr. Hitchcock's gift at work.

Dimitri Tiomkin, a very good film composer, hits all the write notes; that includes knowing when he needs to tell his violins and trumpets to shut up. Robert Burks' cinematography is also strong with effective usage of shadows and streaks of light. Colors are omnipresent. And even though "Dial M for Murder" was shot with the intent to be seen in 3D, it is hardly evident. When I first saw the film, in much superior 2D, I did not mind the lamps and such in the foreground, such as when one bisects the screen between Ray Milland and Anthony Dawson during the opening sequence. I just thought it was a clever piece of filmmaking and misc en scene, not a cheap gimmick like in most 3D movies today. "Dial M for Murder" is a near-perfect movie of its kind, pumped full of smart dialogue and dazzling energy. This is one of the few play-to-movie transition that I have seen where I have suddenly become eager to see the original stage production.
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Larry Crowne (2011)
It's a wonderful little comedy
25 November 2012
About ten years ago, two of my best friends from high school coerced me into watching a movie called "Van Wilder," all the while assuring me that it was extremely funny (we were watching the unrated edition) and that I was going to laugh my head off. In the subsequent two hours, well, they certainly enjoyed themselves. They were spilling their guts and laughing themselves half to death, but I could not even bring myself to smile. I was completely uncompelled (and disgusted) by the film, and it more or less placed a bad mark, for me, on the 'back-to-school' subgenre. In the years since, I had only seen a handful of movies about adults going back to school, for they all seem to follow in the same footsteps as "Van Wilder." All the same routines and regulations: the adults are only adults in the physical sense, and the humor all too heavily reliant upon demeaning sex jokes.

"Larry Crowne" is the sort of comedy I wish my friends had shown me ten years ago. It is a refreshingly unpretentious and disciplined little jewel that I am completely unashamed to admit to liking.

The guardian angel of the movie is its star, director, and co-screenwriter, Tom Hanks. I do not know the movie's production history, but I have a feeling that the script for this picture probably started being another "Van Wilder." Lame jokes involving drunken parties, overuse of foul language, gratuitous nudity, and a particularly negative outlook on the female half of the human race. The movie's premise certainly leaves that open, as it does primary involve a fifty-something-year-old man (Mr. Hanks) returning to school and becoming smitten with his speech professor (Julia Roberts). There is also a subplot, which initially had my worried, involving a possibly across-the-age-gap dynamic between Mr. Hanks and a younger, very rebellious woman who sort of sets out to be his guiding light in returning to school. But regardless of whether the screenplay was the way it is before or if it changed after Mr. Hanks was brought onboard, "Larry Crowne" is far better than that. It pokes fun at its topical subject matter (lay-offs and adults pursuing further education) without putting down the legions of people who can undoubtedly relate to the protagonist.

Tom Hanks does a competent job at directing "Larry Crowne," but I want to talk about his performance. It is really one of the best he has ever done, and this is the same man who helmed the starring roles of "Big," "Forrest Gump," "The Terminal," and "Saving Private Ryan." Straight from the beginning, Mr. Hanks is in-character and very charismatic. In the opening sequences, where we see him bouncing about his average job at a supermarket, he perfectly captures that eager but somewhat hypocritical, bouncy enthusiasm that I can recall from former co-workers who earned the same pay as me, but were two or three (or more) decades older than me. He clearly is making the best of what he has, and faces it with a smile, but deep down, you can clearly tell he's not thrilled about this. And he keeps up that sort of bouncy energy without going over-the-top as he moves further into the picture. Although I did sense a sort of exhaustion (with the character's life) sub-dynamic in the performance, Mr. Hanks does not take the cheap route and throws any frustration in the audience's face. And as the movie progresses, that energetic personae become more gradual, more relaxed, more easygoing.

The protagonist, as written and acted, is not a thirteen-year-old trapped in a middle-aged man's body: he's an adult doing the best with what he has. I cannot possibly communicate how refreshing it is to see that in a college-set comedy.

Just about all of the character relationships work…again, on a subtle, unpretentious level. Julia Roberts, an actress I wish I was seeing more of in contemporary cinema, still has the charm and movie-star quality that made her a beloved figure in the first place. It's also nice to see her tackling the role of a cantankerous, down-on-her-luck (emotionally) woman who really sees her job as merely a way of making a living and not some sort of lifelong passion. Together, they do have some interesting chemistry; they do really seem to like each other. I also liked the relationships between Tom Hanks and the young people he meets at school. There is a gag about the older man flirting with the younger woman, but that, straight from the beginning, is revealed to be a misunderstanding to the audience, and the humor is waiting to see how long before Miss Roberts discovers that she was misled. We're in on the joke, she's not. That's the way to take this sort of material and make it funny, not have the two actually cozy up in the janitor's closet for a cheap, libidinous gag.

"Larry Crowne" is not any sort of a masterwork, but then again, that is not the intentions of the film. And somehow, that's a little more satisfying than some pictures that rave themselves up to be great, spellbinding pieces of artistry. Even if they are impressive films, some of the hype and potential excitement wears off after the audience has been brow-beaten for so long. "Larry Crowne" is a film that came basically out of nowhere, riding on the namesake of its star, and as a result, the surprise and humorous joy are truly special. It's a wonderful little comedy.
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Haywire (2011)
Gina Carano is an extraordinary martial artist, but she's not much of an actress.
13 November 2012
James Agee once wrote that casting in the movies was more about finding the right people as opposed to harvesting the most talent. It's a critical philosophy that I have often found to be true. Ideally, I suppose that theory could apply to the decision to cast mixed martial artist Gina Carano in the new espionage thriller "Haywire." The role demanded a martial artist. Miss Carano is an extraordinary martial artist, as she vividly demonstrates here. Throughout the movie, she scales treacherous obstacles, kicks through doors, propels herself off walls, and beats the living tar out of six people. Guess who performed her stunts! She is also physically suited for the part: comely and attractive, but not a gushy heartthrob. Unfortunately, she is not much of an actress. Not enough to make me care about her character as a human being, which, despite what the basic premise of the movie would suggest, is part of the whole idea.

I suppose James Agee's theory that you don't need a Paul Newman or a Meryl Streep to make a good casting choice applies somewhat to this film. However, as the protagonist, Miss Carano lacks the personality necessary to get an audience involved. The entire movie follows her character (a spy working for a branch-off from the government run by Michael Douglas) from Europe to the Americas, trying to unravel a double-cross, and in order for this to work, the filmmaker and the actress need to manufacture a way to get the audience to empathize on some level. As written by Lem Dobbs, the character is shaped to produce sympathy. Miss Carano is not supposed to be a mere fighting machine; she is supposed to have some heart and a deep bond with her father (Bill Paxton). We are also meant to have some empathy and try to figure out along with her why somebody had double-crossed her. So even though Miss Carano did spend most of the movie doing what she was hired for – demonstrating her exceptional skills at martial arts – I found it incredibly hard to care what became of her. As a result, the mystery, clever as it is, meant little to me by the end.

Another dubious casting choice was Channing Tatum as a fellow spy and one-night lover to the protagonist. Once again, he fails to impress me. Michael Douglas, as you'd expect, is reliably good, given his little screen time. I do appreciate the willingness of a star like him to play third-fiddle to lesser-known people. Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas are also effective in their small, personality-restricted parts.

"Haywire" was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who made the best movie of last year, "Contagion." Dissatisfied as I am with his new project, I'm not shelling him out too much blame, as his beautiful style, consciously artsy photography, and natural flow of images are the saving grace of the movie. His only big lapse is a shootout midway through the picture, when he hefts the camera up on a crane, giving us an extreme wide shot in which tires are popped, somebody is shot, and a car is riddled with machine gunfire. I appreciate his willingness to try something new with a typical action movie sequence as far as photography and misc en scene are concerned, but the results in this one particular shot seem trivialized. He does better when he photographs the physical fighting, including a great shot where Miss Carano and Michael Fassbender (as a man hired to kill her) throw themselves over a couch during a brawl and the camera tilts down from overhead to follow them as they careen to the floor. Mr. Soderbergh is one of the most interesting of contemporary directors and even though "Haywire" is a misfire, I really hope this guy reconsiders his plans of early retirement. I don't think the world can afford to lose him when people like Michael Bay are still running amok.
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Skyfall (2012)
If James Bond did not do what he does here, we would probably be asking for a refund
11 November 2012
There is plenty to like about "Skyfall," the latest of three James Bond films starring Daniel Craig. It has just about everything that a fan of this long-running series of spy movies could want out of it: well-choreographed action sequences, snappy one-liners, a good sense of humor about itself without condescending into self-parody, and a memorable villain…even if he is unforgettable for possibly the wrong reasons. But I had an unusual reaction to the movie. I enjoyed it as a whole, but the things that I liked best were the cinematography and the misc en scene: two attributes that can be primarily credited to director of photography Roger Deakins.

Deakins is one of the most unsung geniuses floating around Hollywood for the past thirty-some years. I don't know how much cinematographers get paid, but I hope this guy is getting rich. When a film producer hires this man to light up his sets, the audience is bound to be impressed. His work in "Skyfall" is no exception and demonstrates Deakins' willingness to experiment from film to film. Usually, in movies like "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fargo," and "The Assassination of Jesse James," Deakins flourishes the camera lens with colors. He does the same here, but this time has an especially fun time playing around with shadows. The film's two best action scenes (one set in a Shanghai skyscraper, the other in a remote English field with a mansion burning in the background) applies both of these to the hilt. I particularly liked the shots with Daniel Craig, as 007, running across a frozen pond with the inferno blazing behind him. Craig is silhouetted, and the orange strobes of the fire cast brilliantly against the ice. Lighting is not as easy as many make it out to be, and Deakins' work here is jaw-dropping in its beauty. Another sequence, more psychological-focused than action-driven, set in a Chinese bar with Komodo dragons kept in a pit beneath the customers, is also pretty to behold.

Cinematography is a key element, but it cannot necessarily make or break a movie. Thankfully, Deakins was put onboard a good project that would have done well even without his genius. This new Bond film is considerably wittier and more exuberant than the last one, "Quantum of Solace," in which Craig's performance was about the only saving grace. Craig is still his usual self: physically fit, commanding in his presence, and uncannily suitable for the role. He still is, as far as I'm concerned, the best Bond since Sean Connery. Sadly, we don't get much of a Bond girl this time (in fact, Judi Dench, as "M," spends more two-shots with Craig than Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, or an unnamed character early in the movie, all of whom are the romantic interests). Craig has a steamy scene (literally) with one of them, but there's not much chemistry or interest between them. Bond does get sexually approached by the (male, mind you) villain of the picture. Javier Bardem's performance, and the scene where he plays homoerotic mind games with Bond while he's tied up (stroking bullet wounds on his chest) is something that would have never gotten by in the old days. As for the big scheme that puts the third act in full-speed, it's the typical mastermind plot. Nothing new, but then again, sometimes the familiarity is the whole idea. What's more shocking than the scheme is Bardem's comically over-the-top performance. He's more funny than he is charming or intimidating. Just how much of the humor was intentional and how much was inadvertent (the last part of the climax comes to mind), I cannot say, but Bardem, though hamming it up, is not boring for a second.

My only big reservation about "Skyfall" concerns the dramatic parts of its third act, in which it explores James Bond's past. Some movie characters, like Indiana Jones or James Bond, really are best with their histories left unexplored. Let's face it: just how much do we care how James Bond became James Bond as opposed to seeing him seduce women, driving motorcycles off bridges, and fighting bad guys on the brim of a skyscraper? I also would have preferred to hear more of the classic James Bond theme. The music by Thomas Neuman is good, especially a suspense cue that reminds me of the late Jerry Goldsmith, but I can still remember the old classics when John Barry's guitars and trumpets would start strumming whenever Sean Connery would so much as walk into a room or step out of a car.

My few quibbles aside, this is a solid November release. And it does reaffirm the old theory put forth by film scholars generations ago that sometimes the formula is exactly what you want. After all, if James Bond did not do what he does here, we would probably be asking for a refund. And one final note about Roger Deakins. I'm sure he will get his tenth Academy Award nomination for this movie. Would it be too much to ask that he gets to take home the gold this time? I confess I haven't seen every 2012 release so far, but none has left images in my mind as long as "Skyfall."
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My impression was that Spielberg had finally directed a movie he didn't want to even see, let alone make
7 November 2012
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" was directed by one of the most talented men in Hollywood today, but it's very hard to tell by what has been finally put on the screen. Sure, the Steven Spielberg technique and flair is ever-present; on a technically level, the movie is superbly done. Hence why the movie's two high points, fatally placed at opposite ends of each other, do ring so powerfully, and unsuccessfully coerced me into forgiving the utter boredom that I suffered through in the middle. Spielberg's hand is present in the second Indiana Jones film, but his heart is missing.

The movie gets off on the wrong foot very early on, after a rousing and clever opening sequence set in Shanghai. Then, toward the end, in a fantastic climax set upon a rickety old bridge spanning a chasm, it regains the momentum and joy of filmmaking that made "Raiders of the Lost Ark," among other Spielberg films, so strong. It is here that "Temple of Doom" accomplishes what its predecessor did: recalling the admittedly cheesy but nevertheless lovable Republic serials of the days gone by. Shootouts in big fancy casinos, with MacGuffins from opposite parties being exchanged via a turning table for drinks. Bad guys trapping our hero over a chasm, leaving him no choice but to cut the rope and take whatever chance he has left. And, in the tradition of those serials, we have crocodiles waiting at the bottom.

So amazingly enough, "Temple of Doom" soars whenever it stays out of the Temple of Doom. For once Indiana Jones and his two sidekicks, and obnoxious singer (Kate Capshaw) and an kid from Shanghai (Jonathan Ke Quan) start traveling into that booby trap-filled pyramid—the point where we would expect the movie to really get moving—everything begins to drag. And although I do compliment Spielberg for delivering the movie's best moments, I also shell him some blame for accepting the screenplay handed to him. One of the best things about "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was that both Spielberg and the screenplay had the same goal. Here, they split paths. The director wanted to continue the tradition of the Republic serials; the screenwriters wanted to make a dopey mishmash of kiddy comedy and gruesome terror. Everything that takes place inside the titular temple plays against each other. It includes scenes where Kate Capshaw is served movie-Indian food (in other words, grotesque bugs that are still living) and she attempts not to gag and is then contrasted with voodoo sacrifices, where the victim's heart is, right before our eyes, ripped out, and the body is thrown into a pit of magma. The screenplay handles these negatively conflicting attitudes with no discipline, resulting in a frantic, schizophrenic demeanor.

Is it not a coincidence that the two people who wrote "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, would, two years later, write the screenplay for another unpleasantly mean-spirited movie that would attempt to ram kid comedy with grotesque horror together? The hinted-at catastrophe: "Howard the Duck." That is where "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" goes so wrong: the unwillingness of the screenwriters to pick a mood and go with it. Harrison Ford is his usual charming self as the titular adventurer, but he's got nobody interesting to tag along with him. And in a movie like this, the hero can only be about as interesting as the adventure he is given to undertake. Dodging the Nazis while searching for religious artifacts worked before and after this movie, but running from voodoo practitioners and being hypnotized into nearly through a comrade into the core of the earth is not what I had in mind for an Indiana Jones adventure. The villains are memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. And his sidekicks are utterly obnoxious. It is hard to tell from this movie that Kate Capshaw is a talented actress. Her squealing and whining goes a long way and really fast. And it is no big wonder why Jonathan Ka Quan, as the little kid, never had a kickoff career. Yes, he was just a kid when making this picture, but there is none of that real spark the audience looks for in a character we're meant to root for.

I wanted more of the traditional stuff when the movie goes into the temple. More booby traps, more trying to figure out how to escape, more fights where the hero has to worry more about being shot or impaled as opposed to being burned alive (because the former can be dealt with in a way that is not unpleasantly gruesome in a movie meant to be joyously enjoyable), and a lot less of the mean-spirited material we get in this installment of the series. In watching "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," I was overcome with this horrible sensation that I never before felt about a Steven Spielberg film: he made a movie he probably would have never wanted to see.
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"Double Indemnity" has all the makings of a great film
7 November 2012
There are many ideas out there on what constitutes a great film. Many would say a great film—in other words, art—is not necessarily an entertainment piece, but a movie which makes comments about life and pushes the audience to do some thinking even when the screening has ended. Personally, I've never stood with the idea that all great films are merely absorbing and never entertaining. That silly idea that films are intellectual stimulants and movies are just trash pumped up in a way that comes across as giddy. Although I do agree that many great films probe the audience to think, one of my solutions is this: when I finish the screening, I sit there afterward and tell myself that there was nothing else I would have rather done in those two hours. That sensation swelled me when I finished watching "Double Indemnity" for the first time about a year ago, and it has returned with me every time I have seen it since.

This marvelous film-noir, directed by Billy Wilder, shoves a dagger into the idea that art cannot be entertaining, only observable. Now "Double Indemnity" does not make its central plot—a salesman co-opting with an unhappy housewife to murder her husband for a $100,000 insurance clause—into something exciting—something people might want to try out at home. In fact, as the movie progresses toward its third act and the two murderers start to lose their grip on what's happening, it poignantly resolves the seemingly tired idea that crime doesn't pay. But there is a certain level of joy to be had from this film. Most of it comes from the brilliant performance of Edward G. Robinson as a comically brilliant claims manager on to the big scheme, and the rest of it comes from the way director Billy Wilder brings tremendous energy out of a leisurely paced story.

As much as I've enjoyed his lighthearted performances, I had always felt that Fred MacMurray was capable of putting darker edges on himself. "Double Indemnity" does not give him the coldblooded meanness I always felt he could play effectively, but it brings him somewhat close to that level. A man who is more clever and intelligent than he appears (not just a dumb salesman, although he does allow femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck to manipulate him), not afraid to undergo any task he puts before himself. But what is also brilliant about MacMurray's performance is the way he gets us the care. That is tricky. The character is a murderer; he planned it out; he arranged it. The movie does not condone his crime, even though his victim is hardly the world's nicest guy. And yet the audience follows MacMurray's story with a certain affection for him, and by the end, much to our shock, we actually sort of wish that he might be allowed to dodge the authorities. Or at least escape the gas chamber. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler provides the motivation, the dialogue, and the drama, but MacMurray rounds it off with an easygoing, effortless shine of a performance. I do not know of Fred MacMurray was the sort of actor who took methods and concentration to a deep level, but he was one of those talents who made good acting look easy.

I give MacMurray special attention, for I feel even the film's greatest admirers have more or less taken his work for granted. I do not by any mean wish to demean Barbara Stanywck's performance. She, too, is excellent. I'll go even further and say this is one of the best villains ever put on-screen. At one point, she looks up at MacMurray, we see the white in her eyes as she smiles, and shivers always run down my spine. I do not begrudge her, it is just that everybody mentions her character first of all when discussing the acting of "Double Indemnity." The movie's got three great performances, and the third goes to Edward G. Robinson, once again, as that eccentric claims manager. Robinson provides most of the movie's bits of comic relief, such as when he stands up to his own boss during a claims dispute, sides with the victim, and goes on a rant about "six volumes of suicide" and "suicide by poisons, subdivided by types of poison" and so forth. Robinson is the straight-shooter of the story, and his dynamic with the MacMurray character is a very fascinating sort of friendship. MacMurray even says "I love you, too." Today, we might take that as some sort of homoerotic subtext. Ignoring the fact that that was utterly forbidden in 1944 films, "Double Indemnity" plays it as a strong friendship. So as the movie progresses, the audience again starts to feel empathy, this time for how Robinson might react when he finds out his best salesman is a murderer.

"Double Indemnity" has all the makings of a great film. The photography is rich and wonderful (the Venetian blinds are used at their ultimate here), and Miklos Rozsa's string-dominate music score is more than something that just plays in the background like an out-of-tune jukebox. The film has a snappy motif theme that repeats at just the right moments and never wears out its welcome. And Billy Wilder, the director, always finds the right decisions on how to shoot a scene and when. When to keep his camera locked for a long stretch of time and when to cut away. The screenplay sure paces itself well, but Wilder was the one who had to figure out how to keep things interesting. And he did with flying colors.

Here is another test for a great film. Watching a movie that you know is great with friends or relatives, and not only relishing in the fact that you love the movie, but when you can tell your associates are loving it too.
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