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The Legend of Sarila (2013)
On the one hand, it's obviously cool that the Quebecois-Canadian film industry can now put out films that look like this. Fifteen years ago, only a few institutions in the world could have amassed the technology, finance, and expertise to put together computer graphic images like this.
On the other hand, however, this democratization of the tools of imaging has, unfortunately, just given more powers of spectacle to incompetent filmmakers who don't have even the most rudimentary idea how to tell a story. This story begins from the premise that an Inuit shaman -- who has gone bad, for badly-explained/justified reasons -- has renounced his ancestral skill set for subservience to an evil god... who nonetheless never gives him any power to do anything about the hateful, unwatchable, noxious, saccharine and awful characters we're supposed to accept as heroes and sympathetic characters. Then at the end, we're supposed to go gooey-eyed because after being stupidly and unconvincingly defeated, he's "forgiven," and thus kinda-sorta redeemed by these horrible "hero" characters who we've spent the last hour-plus wanting to see die... Don't waste your time.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1979)
Navel-gazing at the very highest level
This film is clearly the work of a fanatical Stan Brakhage lover -- to the point of ripping off Brakhage's trademark flicker-titles -- but one who seems to have drawn all the wrong lessons from his idol.
The entire running time is a sustained aural and visual farrago of super-impositions, contrasts, dissonances and overlaps. Multiple images jostle for space on the screen and different soundtracks periodically drown each other out. Elder is evidently hoping to attain the same radical associative effect that Brakhage achieved with Dog Star Man, but without the tenuous tie to reality provided by the man climbing the mountain, the effect is just one of pure, meaningless chaos.
The effect is not improved by the fact that, unlike Brakhage's stark silence, Elder has elected to sledge-hammer home his meaning by inserting a voice-over narration in among the many soundtracks, which intermittently provides us with autobiographical musings and personal insights, all of which tend toward the suffocatingly pretentious.
There is, ultimately, a certain inspiration to be had from the film, in that it reminds you of just how protean the medium of cinema really is, and that the making of totally unique and personal works within it is simply a matter of will. There are shots and subjects in this film that you will assuredly never see in any mainstream commercial film (the phrase "cinematic masturbation" comes to mind for more than the usual one reason), but the ultimate effect is still one of exasperation -- of a man determined to imitate the work of an artist far beyond him, and ending up producing only a vague shambles. Elder might have been better advised to imitate the far starker, bloodier, more unified and earth-bound Brakhage of Window Water Baby Moving and The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, than trying to imitate the extreme flights of associative fantasy of Dog Star Man. The cost of failure would have been lower.
La hora de los hornos: Notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación (1968)
Part One, at least, is astonishing
I was shown the first segment of this film in a lecture on Latin American Cinema, and afterwards I was given the accompanying political manifesto in which Solanas reiterates his revolutionary philosophy. Whatever you make of the politics, it is admirable how he has so artfully expressed the same anti-imperialist messages in the very different mediums of cinema and literature. The economic and cultural colonization to which the West has subjected Argentina, and the craven cooperation of a mindlessly Europeanized elite are both harped upon; first with the skillful editing of interviews and documentary footage, and then simply with expertly chosen words. In both cases the goal was to ferret out the ultimate causes, rather than merely bemoan the effects -- namely chronic underdevelopment and immense poverty and human misery.
This relatively cold description misses the point, however. The real strength of the first segment of this film is its unbelievable emotional power. It is a fire and brimstone tirade against the state of Argentina, with the explicit goal of stirring up revolutionary aggression against those whom Solanas and his cadre deem most immediately responsible. Everything is either extremely kinetic editing, emotionally charged narration, or carefully selected cinema verite footage of police and military brutality, urban and rural poverty, or the plight of indigenous peoples -- all accompanied by explanatory titles cards which literally surge forward at the viewer. The movie is a virtuoso experience of emotional manipulation at its most sophisticated, going so far as to climax with a rapid montage of shots of youth mindlessly milling around record stores edited to the sound of machine gun fire.
Inevitably, reality soon sets back in. One hesitates to apply words like "one-sided" or "biased" to a film like this. This is no Michael Moore spiel, or one of the numerous liberal exposes that criticize American culture from within -- it is nothing less than a late 60s revolutionary call to arms; a militant document aimed at combating the repression of a very real authoritarianism. As such, it's more fruitful to critique the direction it wishes to lead than the relative truth of the world-view it puts forth. For this, one can find no better crystallization than the film's coda. This is simply a minute-long close-up of the lifeless face Che Guevara -- Argentina's ultimate revolutionary gazing at us from beyond the grave, perhaps inviting others to follow his example. This is not a blind fetishization of him on the basis of Alberto Korda's great photograph, but a valorization of his revolutionary Stalinism, which Solanas's manifesto agrees with in labeling "Peace" and "Democracy" reformist cop-outs on true social justice. This sort of thing is the real stumbling block to viewing the film today, when the ferment of the 60s is past and the new face of Argentinian cinema is the likes of Nine Queens. Today, for all but fanatics, the film is merely a fascinating socio-historical document.
The Land Before Time (1988)
Heartwarming and tear-jerking to an unusual degree
This is one of the very few films I've ever seen, live-action or otherwise, that really succeeded in telegraphing the sheer pain it must cause to lose a beloved family member. Usually in movies, the requisite is one scene or so of a character grieving, and then the plot must continue on unabated. The Land Before Time managed otherwise. The tragic final scene between Little Foot and his mother achieves a poignancy I can't remember anything matching, and the effect of it is heightened by the fact that it is not simply brushed under the rug for rollicking journey adventures to continue. We continue to feel Little Foot's pain throughout the film, and this fact makes the respites from it he finds in his new gang of friends all the more effective. Admittedly a HUGE amount of the credit for this must go to James Horner for his brilliant score, but director Don Bluth never mishandles a character moment meant to be crucial in this thread.
Also, although much of the action is generally cartoon-level stuff, the opening is vastly more majestic and dignified than one might expect in a story such as this, and, combined with Pat Hingle's ultra-dignified narration, gives the film a weightier context than one might otherwise credit it with. The ending only confirms this, with the Great Valley opening up before the dinosaurs as one of the best and most blatant Garden of Edens ever shown on film. The excellent song over the ending credits clinches it even further.
This shouldn't imply its a perfect work. There are spaces in between the weightier moments when it lapses sadly into clichés and contrivances, and these deflate with depressing speed some of what the film has accomplished. But certainly not to a critical degree. Don Bluth seems to have made it a mission in his career to avoid playing it safe or being too predictable. I've gone over most of his films in the last few weeks, and I've noticed that he always seems to get into his plots and characters by some unusual route. In films like The Secret of NIMH or Titan A.E., this sort of thing works brilliantly, and even his lesser works (An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven) are at least noble experiments. The Land Before Time is the product of a craftsman at work.
Vanity Fair (2004)
Period romance for Red States
This star vehicle for Reese Witherspoon seems to be an attempt to create a Scarlett O'Hara for the 21st century. It's both frightening and sad, then, that Witherspoon's Rebecca Sharpe is ultimately far more innocent, tame, restrained and submissive than her counterpart of 65 years ago could ever have conceived of being. Her character is initially set up as an ultra-ambitious social climber who does not tolerate oppression, but depressingly soon in the film's two-and-a-quarter hour running time, she turns from a devious minx into a wholesome little thing who keeps her legs clamped tightly together, betrays a screaming and hysterical ignorance about matters of money, and stays loyally married to the most stupid and foppish husband imaginable. Some of the material in here might have been edgy back in the Eisenhower era, but in the modern world it's hard to imagine any audiences besides pre-pubescent girls taking much of this seriously.
Having finished my rant, however, I must concede that in all fairness, Mira Nair does handle this material very well. In a way reminiscent of Peter Kosminsky's version of Wuthering Heights, she sets the film apart from the vast bulk of Victorian novel adaptations by constantly imbuing the usual English country houses and costumes with an atmosphere of the exotic and mystical -- in this case, Nair's native Indian culture. It's this material that yields the film's best moments.
Overall, however, it's a disappointing effort. I haven't read Thackeray's novel, but anyone familiar with the period knows that early 19th century England was a harsh and unforgiving world for working people and failed aristocrats alike. That the film makes so light of all this indicates that it's less interested in verisimilitude than in flashing Reese Witherspoon's docile smile at multiplex audiences. Gabriel Byrne is wasted in a role that should make him a threatening presence, but then emasculates him so as not to risk the film's PG-13 rating. Eileen Atkins and Jim Broadbent are as excellent as always, however. The film doesn't deserve them, but their presence does give a certain reassurance that good movies of this sort do exist.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
One of the best period pieces I've ever seen
Far too many period pieces these days look like what they are -- 20th or 21st century actors putting on historical costumes (which may or may not be accurate) and acting out a story with no attempt whatsoever to really get into the mindset of the period in question. I think that exceptions to this rule are becoming more common these days (Master and Commander was very impressive) but only when helmed by especially conscientious and meticulous directors. And no director was ever more conscientious and meticulous than Stanley Kubrick
With Barry Lyndon, Kubrick does for the period picture what 2001 did for science fiction, what Dr. Strangelove did for the comedy, and what Spartacus may or may not have done for the costume epic. There's little enough by way of definite plot here, just Ryan O'Neil trying to make his way through life in the 18th century as best he can. It was a period where society's chosen ones could live like gods, and the unlucky could descend to sub-human squalor, and it was perfectly possible to do both in a single lifetime. It was also the Age of Reason, where weakness of nerve or instinct to self-preservation was considered much less important than a gentleman's agreement.
It's passed into film legend that no artificial lighting whatsoever was used in filming. This wasn't quite the case -- it was unavoidable for a few scenes -- but Kubrick was hell-bent on minimizing it as much as possible to get the authentic effect of rooms lit all by candlelight. Kubrick's background in still photography was apparent in A Clockwork Orange, but he's taken on a painter's eye here -- logical since 18th century painting offered an entire world of research material.
This is, in the end, a very visual film. As such, the level of acting isn't as memorably ingenious as in some of Kubrick's other films. An excellently written narration track and some ingenious text at the climax is needed to really tie everything together. But this movie apparently still gave Ryan O'Neil's career enough of a boost that two years later he ended up headlining A Bridge Too Far with the likes of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, and Elliot Gould. Just another day's work for Kubrick. This isn't his best-known work, but it's still a masterpiece.
The Reagan/Thatcher era taken to its logical conclusion
There's a piece of graffiti scrawled on the wall in the background in the scene where Sam goes to Mrs. Buttle's building. You might not notice on your first viewing, but it says "Fold. Staple. Mutilate." Whoever scrawled that on there has perfectly summed up the world of "Brazil" and all its impersonal insensitivity and madness.
The first hour or so of the movie is world-class. The England it depicts is a society so choked by bureaucracy that any human element is lost, and so cut-throat in its petty materialism that no one misses it. Jonathan Pryce plays our hero -- a completely unheroic everyman who drags himself from his non-descript apartment block to a stifling job under an idiot, the monotony only broken by being dragged to lunch with his mother at hideously pretentious restaurants filled with her mindlessly chatting socialite friends. Terrorist bombings are a constant, but are marginalized so as not to interfere with profit or pleasure -- suspects are simply dragged off to their death by black ops stormtroopers. Obviously this film was very relevant when first released, but it seems almost prophetic now.
Unfortunately, when the film begins to stray from this chillingly credible line, its brilliance rapidly fades. The camera style slips out of the tightly-controlled groove it had been it and lingers on grandiose, meaningless panoramas. The writing becomes sloppy, with no discernible motivations being given for character's actions, and Kim Greist's awful performance as Jill certainly doesn't help. Some sloppy special effects further degrade the film (that oversized explosion that painfully betrays the miniature work). The final sequence is some improvement, even if it's occasionally too surrealistic for its own good.
I studied this in my first year of film studies at university, and I can see why. There's lots of layers to it, and a distinctive enough look that you can start to develop your viewing muscles on it. It's a much better textbook than it is a piece of entertainment.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
It's not really that Earth-shaking
I was an atheist with no anti-Semitic tendencies when I went into this film, and I was an atheist with no anti-Semitic tendencies when I emerged from the theatre. In the intervening 100 minutes I was interested and occasionally moved. The film was incredibly well-shot, and the casting and production design were first-rate. Having all the dialogue be in Aramaic and Latin was a bold and brilliant stroke. Yes, there was a lot of rather messy violence, but frankly, after all the super-heated controversy, I expected much worse.
In other words, the actual film The Passion of the Christ is a good, solid piece of cinema, but religious attitudes being what they evidently are in the United States, this fact was lost track of. No half-way intelligent person would have found this film overtly anti-Semitic, but something has to satisfy the constant need of bored people for something to carp over. This was not even the first film of Mel Gibson's to be lambasted for "pornographic violence." Those battle scenes in Braveheart set a few critics squirming in their seats, too.
And this isn't even the most religiously offensive film Mel Gibson has ever been attached to. Remember the tub of saccharine that was We Were Soldiers?
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Yes, freedom is definitely burning
One never expects government to be squeaky clean and on the level with all its actions. One accepts that back-room dealings have always been part of politics, and you can just hope that little real harm will be done by them. I live in Ottawa, Canada, where last year it came to light that politicians had been lining their pockets with millions of dollars funneled through advertising companies. It was embarrassing, and much was heard about it in the following year's election.
But the level of sociopathic greed and bloodlust exhibited by George W. Bush and his merry cabal of lunatics in Fahrenheit 9/11 has really sunk the standard of government to a new low. We've heard all this before, but seeing it all recounted -- one crime and lie after another, by a Michael Moore who does not shy from expressing his outrage over Bush's conduct -- is a revelatory experience.
Simply as a film, it's not without its flaws. It's been well-established that Moore has toned down his impish humour and personal omnipresence in this effort, but there are some sections -- notably the segments documenting all the James Bath and Carlyle Group intricacies, and a marathon of "Iraqi occupation home videos" -- that run perilously close to becoming dry and uninteresting. Some more personal presence from Moore might have avoided this.
The rest of the time, however, it's phenomenally effective. Moore's uncanny gift for picking exactly the right tunes to give images an editorial slant has not lessened, and his narration is as cutting as always. The editing is pure satiric brilliance, from the normal game of juxtaposition, which is played more shamelessly than usual with a montage of Iraqi children playing in the last seconds before the invasion; to the insertion of strategic subtitles (dig that John Ashcroft music video); to a digitally touched-up recap of the Afghanistan campaign that has to be seen to be believed. As an added bonus, Michael Moore has finally found a subject worthy of George Orwell quotes. The ending montage set to one of the most crucial passages of "1984" ends the film on a perfect note.
And then there's George W. Bush. I have never had any respect for the man, but the indictment of him presented here made me want to bash his head in with a brick. He is a man who ran on his father's name credit alone, won the party nomination by the skin of his teeth, failed to win the election, was averse to lifting a finger during his first nine months in office, and then exploited the 9/11 tragedy to rob Americans of their civil liberties and squander the lives of the country's troops on his Iraqi ego trip. I don't expect that anyone who seriously supported him in the first place will be convinced otherwise by Fahrenheit 9/11. They'll be just as enraged by the film as his detractors, but in a very different way. They'd do better not to see the film at all, and thus claim they did nothing to inflate its box office take. The same treatment I plan to give that upcoming obscenity Michael Moore Hates America.
Apollo 13 (1995)
It can't really be perfect...
Apollo 13 is the type of film that inspires an almost reverential cinematic high immediately after a showing. This in itself is good. It's yet another example of the a well-made film's power. But then you sleep on it for a few nights; your blood cools; and you realize the film isn't actually perfect. Right?
Apollo 13 certainly has everything going for it. The acting is first rate, with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton all giving career-high performances. The script is excellent; it successfully rides the line of maximum emotion without degenerating into cliche and saccharine territory. It has excellent cinematography and visual effects. It's a superior period picture, although I'm relying on hearsay for this, since it takes place a generation before my time. Ron Howard also displays a willingness to take a few risks. The movie would have worked excellently as a straight docudrama, but he instead adds a few touches to give it some more intangible impact -- some "evil omen" signs that don't insult the audience's intelligence, and some dream and fantasy scenes that work excellently.
One thing I noticed was that the film wears its era's politics quite unashamedly. There is precious little revisionist history here. The women are all housewives with very simple moral world-views, and the world they live in is completely white-bred. Tom Hank's Lovell reminisces about his World War II record, his son goes to military school, and the newscasts at the end are overstuffed with references to prayers for the astronauts going on all over the world. A lot of these are small details that could have been changed with no trouble, but the filmmakers retained them, and the cumulative impact is to give a very clear sense that you are living in the Nixon era.
Ultimately, this may be the cause of my hesitation. This is a film that works best if you whole-heartedly immerse yourself in its emotions, rather than holding back to ponder its political bent. But even so, that climax and ending monologue will get you every time.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Not bad, but definitely no masterpiece
This movie is a great example of right-wing sophistry. It asks us to believe that it's best to just unthinkingly act according to our own moral inclinations (assuming, of course, that they are the product of simple and well-off Christian upbringing), and put blind faith in the existing order, which will of course self-correct if it ever errs. It glorifies the vast accumulation of wealth because you will of course share it around, and treats military service as an inevitability not to be questioned.
Now in all fairness, this is an oversimplification of the film's message. If this had been all there was to the film, it would likely have been a box-office bomb and generated as much negative feedback as it ultimately did positive. But this is the core of the film. The best that can be said for it is that it delivers this conservative message with several liberal flourishes, making it politically intriguing.
For example, the single mother who gets her unqualified son into school by having sex with the principal hardly squares with the kind of persona one would usually attribute to a 50s woman who is horrified by Elvis's pelvic antics. And it is to the film's credit that while it implies stupidity to be useful in all aspects of life, it explicitly states that it is your best friend in the military. The film does vilify a lot of the youth protest movements of the 60s, but it also seems to take a sardonic glee in Edgar Wallace being shot, and it plays for laughs Forrest Gump showing his ass to Lyndon Johnson. And note the photo of Marilyn Monroe in JFK's bathroom.
On paper, this would sound like an explosive movie, but most people seem to take it as just a harmless and fun experience. No doubt this is because of the core element -- Tom Hanks's performance. And honestly, this is excellent. Hanks makes Forrest Gump likable and sincere in a way few, if any, other actors could have. My personal Tom Hanks heaven will always be G.H. Dorr, PhD, from The Ladykillers, but this is deservedly some of his best-known work.
More Kaufman brilliance
What really strikes you is how cold it always looks. Most of the time in romantic comedies, the sun is always warmly shining and the colours are bright and vibrant. Here Michael Gondry has used a very drab and muted colour palate for almost every scene, and occasionally added a snow drift too small and wind-swept to be festive, but perfect for depressing the cold and lonely. Compare the beach so often featured in this movie to the one in Something's Gotta Give for a perfect example.
Gondry's images create a visual experience in which Charlie Kaufman's latest screenplay can work to best effect. In a lighter, more cinematic, world, Jim Carrey's protagonist would have seemed impossibly inhibited, and there would seem no reason why he and Clementine couldn't live happily ever after from the moment they met. But this movie looks too much like a real cold and cloudy morning in February for us to harbour any such delusions. Life is never like in the movies, but only the best movies acknowledge the fact.
Practically everything about this movie's depiction of dreams is as perfect as it logically can be, right down to the books you can see but can't read. It recognizes that when your subconscious chooses to mix and match, it has no respect whatsoever for what you would consciously consider to be normal. And it also does not delude us that if lots of our memories were erased, we would actually miss them. How much do you actually remember? If you cast your mind back and encountered a blank, would you suspect something, or just figure nothing worth remembering had happened?
The movie also strikes a nice balance between pure philosophizing and more accessible comedy content. While the mental intricacies go on inside Jim Carrey's sleeping head, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Elijah Wood display a contempt for his sleeping form and his apartment unworthy of a lab rat. The contrast works even better than it sounds.
Kaufman's screenplay here is actually his own original work, which makes it all the more remarkable. In recent years, mainstream Hollywood seems to have taken up a fascination with the ins and outs of the human mind and memory, but depressingly often this simply amounts to nothing more than loose adaptations of Philip K. Dick short stories. I for one welcome something a little more complex.
Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)
Vladimir Illyich Christ
Throughout the Cold War, a favourite evil of conservative Americans about the Communists was their atheist philosophy of "religion is the opiate of the masses." Pier Paolo Pasolini -- himself a communist -- here takes the opposite approach. He reminds us that Jesus was no less a revolutionary than Lenin himself.
To bring off the ideological feat of a Red Jesus, this movie takes pains to avoid looking too sublime or divine. The movie is shot exactly like you would expect of a cadre of revolutionaries videotaping their bid for power -- wide, static, shots where necessary for capturing locations or big action events; shaky, hand-held shots when in crowds, like you're having to jostle to keep the camera focused (Jesus's condemnation is hard to capture because the guy in front is too tall); and of course lots of close head shots of their leader expounding his message.
The miracles are presented with minimal dramatic flourish, again as you would expect in this mindset. The apostles just unemotionally know that they could do worse than follow a revolutionary so obviously well-qualified to bring about his revolution. The resurrection is also presented in exactly this light. He rises from the dead to tell them to keep spreading his words.
Pasolini was a fascinating filmmaker, and this movie is no exception. It's an attempt to reconcile an impossible contradiction -- an atheist making a film about God -- by presenting it as pared-down and literally as possible. He avoids the kind of mix-and-match Biblical interpretation that got Mel Gibson in hot water with scholars by rigorously sticking to just the book of Matthew. But he then displays his true nature in the film's title -- the prefix "Saint" was added just for English releases. Look at the top of your screen and you'll see it nowhere in Italian. But then why does he need to be called "Saint"? Matthew was a revolutionary and his cause was victorious. Shouldn't that be enough for him? As you can obviously guess, this movie provides endless food for thought.
The Ladykillers (2004)
A decent film, but an ingenious Tom Hanks
Frankly, I wasn't all that impressed with the original British version. There. I've said it. I thought it had a lacklustre script with poorly drawn characters. The Coen Brothers, on the other hand, have the exact opposite problem. The script isn't much better, but they're so fixated on delineating all five of their criminals into easily identifiable types that they've left realism behind in the dirt and gone for effect alone. And for my money, this approach is the better one for a medium-grade comedy.
The one true stroke of genius here is the characterization of Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. He's a character of seemingly limitless vocabulary and infinite lung capacity, and is not afraid to use both. He resembles nothing so much as an evil Colonel Sanders. Tom Hanks takes the ball and runs with it, giving him a style of address that's an odd mixture menace, affability, and condescension, not to mention a bizarrely obsequious laugh that seems to come from a nine-year old. This sole character is worth the price of admission.
The thing that's always confused me about this movie is how everyone always assumes G.H. Dorr is only posing as a professor of the Greek and Roman classics. I'm sure he really is one. Only a man who has learned his Gorgias VERY well could conceivably have such mastery over the arts of rhetoric and sophistry.
The Longest Day (1962)
The most over-rated movie ever made
There is too much good stuff in The Longest Day for it to be called totally worthless, but it's certainly less good than you'd think, given its credentials. The film was an incredibly epic production, probably right up there with Lawrence of Arabia for sheer number of extras, number of costumes, number of locations, etc. This may actually be the films problem: it's too big to hold together, and collapses under its own weight.
The film touted itself as having a cast of "48 international stars." I don't think its being timid to say that's too many. It obviously lets out much by way of character development, and even makes it hard to keep track of who's who. The audience is expected to keep track of dozens of subtitles telling characters' names and affiliations. This is mitigated somewhat by the star system, however that brings up another problem -- no single player is able to get enough screen time to really capture our attention. John Wayne swaggers forth for what looks like it could have been one of the best movies of his career, and then never really gets to do anything.
And really, the script is just plain bad. A lot of the dialogue sounds bizarrely amateurish, and more than a few situations are so badly conceived its more like a comedy than a "war epic." Big dramatic moments are written in that never come to anything, and supposedly big moments are shoehorned in when there's been nothing to remotely build up to them. Any kind of tension or coherent pacing are nowhere to be seen, and this is worsened by the fact that the film is criminally over-long. It could have ended over an hour before it does, and when it finally does end, it would be hard to imagine a more arbitrary moment for it.
One can probably tell a lot from the fact that the film had three directors, nearly a dozen screenwriters, and an army of consultants. With so many voices clamouring at once, its no surprise the film takes the vague, rambling shape it does, with no single, coherent voice shining through.
And the combat. Oh, the combat. Imagine if you will the fantasies of a six-year old with only the vaguest idea of what a war consists of. Now imagine that same six-year old given a Hollywood epic budget to put his fantasies on screen. That's what a lot of the film's fighting looks like. We're spoiled for realism in this age of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, where We Were Soldiers is the worst it gets. The Longest Day is the product of another age, where it was thought necessary to romanticize war and lionize the soldiers in it. When it was an odious task to have to show a single GI get killed, and would be made up for by showing 50 Germans with machine guns get gunned down by one GI with a rifle and a few grenades (which in this movie, seem mysteriously to be nothing more than smoke grenades).
The only redeeming moments in this movie come from the odd moment when one of its stars gets enough screen time to say something memorable, or the odd cleverly scripted moment. Big, grandiose aerial shots of battle mean little when they're in no coherent context, and it doesn't help that they're interspersed with gratuitously slapstick humour. This movie is not even worth wasting a coupon on.
The Great Dictator (1940)
Thus always to tyrants...
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS
With The Great Dictator, after holding out for years, Charlie Chaplin finally joined the world of talking pictures. On a purely cinematic level, the results are far from perfect, but Chaplin picked his subject matter well enough to more than make up for it. Rather than just being another adventure of the tramp stumbling through an uncaring world, The Great Dictator is a merciless mockery of Hitler's deranged regime. It reminded the world, at a time when it seemed to be willfully blind, just how stifling, corrupt, and inefficient Nazism really was.
At the centre of the picture, and easily the best thing about it, is Chaplin's portrayal of the titular character, "Adenoid Hynkel." His resemblance to Hitler in appearance, voice, and action is uncanny, and this makes his constant efforts to make Hitler look ridiculous all the more effective. You go from watching what almost looks like documentary footage to seeing Hynkel gesticulate lewdly about "die Aryan maiden," and then fall down the stairs (it's more funny in context than it sounds here). Equally brilliantly handled are the points about Hitler's fixation on Nazifying classical art (Venus and the Thinker giving the salute), the ruthless military experimentation (the bullet-proof uniform, the parachute hat, both of which messily fail), and Goebbels' (here called Garbitsch) attempts at psychology not being nearly as brilliant as he thinks. Plus, the obsessive one up-manship between Hynkel and "Benzino Napaloni" is pure gold.
The weakest parts of the film are those that don't deal with Hynkel, and unfortunately, there's a lot of them. Chaplin's other role is as a Jewish barber who is almost-but-not-quite the tramp. The scripting for these sections is much less sharp and much more meandering, and there are too many characters who aren't very strongly drawn. To his credit, however, Chaplin relies on his old mastery of silent comedy a lot to give these scenes some impact. The chase around the roof is a classic, and the "coin in the pudding" sequence is priceless, not to mention some of the barber's professional antics.
In the final scene's bombastic speech to the audience officially has the barber impersonating Hynkel, but of course it's really Chaplin himself speaking. Perhaps it is a bit shameless and obvious, but one has to remember that when it was originally spoken, the "medieval maniac" that Hynkel was a parody of was still very much alive and menacing, and had more than a few sympathizers around the world. A film that's so blatantly political and yet so good on its own is not something we'll likely see again soon. Though something called "The Appointed President" might not be amiss...
Heisei tanuki gassen ponpoko (1994)
Less than the sum of its parts
Isao Takahata, the man who brought us the good Only Yesterday and the masterful Grave of the Fireflies, is at his most bizarre here. This is essentially the same story about anthropomorphic animals being distressed that humans are destroying their home that has been told countless times before, but there's precious little here that will be tiresomely familiar. The movie is overflowing with creativity, humour, and invention; and in the end, that's probably why it's ultimately less than a masterpiece. There's so much here that too little attention seems to have gone into tying it all together coherently.
The first half is definitely the best, since the movie treads more carefully while establishing itself. The raccoons living in a forest that's scheduled to be destroyed to make way for a new Tokyo suburb unite to develop their shapeshifting powers and use them to save their home. The problem, however, is that these are not professional guerrillas or revolutionaries or anything of the sort. They are raccoons, and as such, equally concerned with partying and scavenging in the humans' trash as with getting rid of them. There's also a priceless plot point about the need to keep the population down by stopping all mating in spring -- a policy with obvious enforcement problems. The tone is kept mostly light, and things move briskly, making the movie a fun experience thus far. Particularly ingenious is how the raccoons are shown differently according to the dramatic needs of the scene/ sometimes they're drawn completely realistically, walking on four legs and with totally inexpressive faces; sometimes they're drawn like traditional bipedal cartoon characters; and other times they take on human form.
However, its two-hour running time may have been a bit much. There's no concrete point where it stops working, but somehow the second hour works less well than the first. Plot points become more and more dubious and underdeveloped. What kind of Spook War could so easily be mistaken for a parade? Why were they initially so reticent about talking to the TV reporter? Shouldn't they have tried to do something with that million dollars they stole? Also, the "turn back the clock" illusion at the climax is maybe too ambiguous for its own good. It's not that it couldn't have been effective -- Hayao Miyazaki fine-tuned it to be devastatingly effective in Princess Mononoke -- but it just seems a bit incongruous here. The very end tries to be bittersweet in its admission of defeat but continuance of hope, but with only nominal success.
Still, this one is definitely worth seeing. As with all Studio Ghibli films, it's more concerned with real emotions and issues rather than the spraying blood and female nudity of so much other anime, and the level of wit and invention is some of the highest ever. It's a textbook example of how to handle anthropomorphism of animals with a maximum realism and a minimum of sentimentality. And where else are you going to see balls used so effectively as weapons?
Pather Panchali (1955)
The ultimate home movie
WARNING: PRETTY BLATANT SPOILERS!
That's basically what this film is -- a big home movie. It's production was initially about that sophisticated, it all takes place in the same neighbourhood, and the mother and daughter characters really are mother and daughter. The result of all this is that the film is far more affecting than it would have been if it had been more obviously made.
This movie is based on a novel apparently, but there's really not much plot, simply because real life never has much plot. It's just plodding along from day to day, with interesting things occasionally happening along the way, and where only a sudden, horrible tragedy can really break things up. There is not one false note to be found in any of the characters, who are some of the most real I've ever seen. They each have their sweetnesses and their villainies, and you like them or not on balance of them. If you doubt how effective this is, I'll only say this: NEVER have I so hoped a character wouldn't die as I did when the climax of this film drew near.
India is a country that seems to thrive on excess, both in its own Bollywood productions and in the sort of films it generates in Hollywood (Passage to India, Gandhi, Kama Sutra, for example). This is totally the other extreme, showing us the mundane, undramatic lives of the ordinary people. This doesn't even have the absolute-rock-bottom drama of Salaam Bombay. For most viewers, it's the sort of movie their life would adapt into.
Paul Verhoeven is a master of the futile and messy death, and nowhere does he show this off to better effect than Robocop. The titular character is almost totally covered in impenetrable armour, so when he walks into a gunfight, he cannot be hurt, but the stage can be set for an fetishtically long sequence where countless hoodlums are written off with a single shot while blazing away uselessly. The titular character's nemesis is a walking tank that orders suspects to throw away their guns or be shot, but then malfunctions and shoots them anyway. You can see from this the sort of sense of humour Paul Verhoeven has. And this isn't even the worst the movie has to offer.
The goal here is the same as Starship Troopers: take a simple leftist idea like the safeguarding of individual rights or opposition to unrestricted capitalism or militarism, and dress it up with so much violence that the political dimension will be the last thing on anyone's mind. Stupid, conservative, politically-correct North America thus misses the forest for the trees.
Sorry, I haven't mentioned the actual movie itself yet. It's good stuff. It shows its 80s roots strongly, but not in a bad way. Upper management having a cocaine party, for example, or "the orbiting SDI platform misfiring and killing two former US presidents!!!" Take that Reagan! Oh, sorry, there's the political edge again.
The film that unleashed Paul Verhoeven on America
There are probably some directors out there too inhibited to put their darkest and most deranged fantasies on the screen. Paul Verhoeven is either not one of them, or just so psychotic that this is his usual routine. Either way, his films make for great viewing, and Flesh + Blood is no exception. This is a medieval marathon of rotting flesh and dead children, with a wide variety of the bizarrely casual deaths that Paul Verhoeven can make so depravedly amusing. This movie is just a plain old sadistic good time.
Actually, in all fairness, the movie isn't perfect. The story starts of shuffle back and forth aimlessly in the second half, and this is accompanied by some pretty ludicrous plot developments involving a self-extending ramp and a pretty unwise use of lightning.
Still, when far too much of what passes for medieval fare out there is like A Knight's Tale or Dragonheart, it's nice to see something that totally de-romanticizes the Middle Ages and shows it for all its horror and avarice.
Kenpû denki beruseruku (1997)
Very crude, but very watchable
The plot of Berserk is purely the stuff of pulp fiction novel series: a young man with a talent for killing falls in with a group of super-mercenaries, and with them, grows into the most lethal warrior of his time. However, it's done as well as it can be here.
At first, Berserk seems crude beyond belief. It's certainly not brilliantly scripted, and the animation isn't top quality, but it grows on you remarkably fast. The European medieval setting makes the intensely bloody action and philosophical musings seem more natural, and character of Guts is solid enough to give some substance to the series as a whole. He's pure killing power, untempered by reflection or remorse. But as the series goes on, he learns some responsibility and compassion. It doesn't happen in some sudden epiphany, but gradually. Also, a lot of his history is revealed in flashbacks. We learn the unflinching truth of how he became so unfeeling.
So overall, Berserk is definitely worth seeing. It's character driven in spite of its intense violence, and it has some genuine emotions in spite of its hardcore narrative cruelty.
Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
I loved it
I admit the primary reason I saw this movie was because of the talent involved. Director Mike Newell's next project is to be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Kirsten Dunst's profile just keeps rising these days as one Spiderman movie follows another; and Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal are always great. Oh yeah, and Julia Roberts is there too.
What surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. A lot of it probably comes from the period setting, where even if you get bored with the story, at least the art department can always throw in a few antique cars, TVs, outfits, etc. to keep your interest. But there's also a very genuine appeal that comes from the characters. The screenplay treats them all well, and the performances the actresses give are uniformly excellent.
Some criticisms that have been directed against this film are that in the whole class there only appear to be three or four students of any consequence, and the rest are just scenery. Or that Julia Roberts's performance is too withdrawn for what the script tries to make her out to be. As to the first of these: I'm in first-year university right now, and I can say from personal experience that in any class there's always a small cabal of students that are the vocal, proactive ones, and the rest just take notes and occasionally say something (which type I am depends on the class). And as to Julia Roberts, if I'd had more teachers like her character throughout high school, I'd have much fonder memories of it. Her performance is spot-on, enlightened without being obvious or condescending.
And I've heard the end called saccharine. I'll allow that it's sweet, as sweet as possible, even, but not saccharine. It tries to be touching and thought-provoking, and it succeeds. After this school drama, I'm eager to see what Newell can do with Hogwarts.
Wuthering Heights (1992)
There's a nice cozy asylum cell out there waiting for those who think William Wyler's 1939 version is better than this. Instead or brutally truncating Emily Bronte's book and sanitizing its more complex and harsh moments for Hollywood audiences, it takes on the entire story, and does so with an incredible visual grace and dramatic strength.
The cinematography is breathtaking. It gives an other-worldly, ethereal, beauty to the English countryside, and creates a succession of intensely atmospheric incarnations of Wuthering Heights. The art direction is excellent, though it must be admitted that rather than take Wyler's minimalist approach, it goes for broke castle-style here. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Heathcliffe; just as in the novel, he retains our sympathy and admiration throughout even though by all rights we should hate him. Juliet Binoche is less dynamic, but acquits herself well enough as two generation's worth of Catherines. And of course everyone's performance is inestimably aided by the great camera-work.
It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and it flows beautifully. Not bad for the 19th century's uglier stories.
Kôkaku Kidôtai (1995)
Ghost in the Shell is one of the greatest pieces of anime I've ever seen. For my money it's even better than Akira. All the classic elements are there: the gritty, futuristic urban setting; the non-stop angst; the gratuitous female nudity; the incredibly complex art design; and, of course, the insane level of violence. The plot is also excellent in the typical anime way -- the story moves unrelentingly fast, with no exposition not absolutely necessary, but this doesn't necessarily translate into the film's tempo being too fast. Some scenes, particularly the lake-front fight, move at just the right measured pace. Clearly the prodigious screenwriting talent Kazunori Ito displayed with the Gamera trilogy was no fluke. The action is just excellent.
If you like anime of this type, you'll probably love it, and even if not, you might still find it a guilty pleasure.
Schindler's List (1993)
It really is that perfect
WARNING: ONE MINOR SPOILER
This film has often been accused of being so emotionally powerful as to suppress objective analysis. It's almost thuggish in how hard it makes it to step back and rationally look for the flaws you know must be there, but you've been so shaken by the experience of the film you don't want to look for them.
And to these accusations I say: CONGRATULATIONS STEVEN SPIELBERG! In an age when too many Hollywood epics have you checking your watch (you know who you are Cold Mountain), it's nice to see one that instead makes you check a mirror to see if your tear-stained face is too dishevelled.
Liam Neeson demonstrates just why he is the best actor around for playing secular saints (or Catholic, in this case, but in general...), Ralph Fiennes creates one of film history's most complex villains; Goeth is evil, no doubt, but there are still moments when we genuinely like him. As for Ben Kingsley, well he gives another great performance in a career full of great performances. The black and white photography is not pretentious, it's perfectly natural for the period atmosphere the film creates. It wouldn't have worked nearly as well in colour, plus, they wouldn't have been able to do the girl in the red dress, which in itself justifies the decision. And yes, this is a very violent film, but it's not ground-breakingly bloody, and as with Saving Private Ryan later on, Spielberg avoids being gratuitous.
Are there any problems? Well, I've seen the film three times, and there's only one thing that bugs me: the scene near the start where the Jews are being herded into the ghetto, and the little girl scoops mud up from the gutter to hurl it at them, shouting "Goodbye Jews!" There's just an annoying screech to her voice, and it isn't improved by having her repeat it over and over in exactly the same tone. There's a sincerity that seems lacking.
Given that my sole quibble lasts 10 seconds at most, out of a three hour-plus movie, should about close the case. It's a masterpiece.