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Lost in Translation (2003)
I was seriously disappointed by Lost in Translation. Every critic LOVED this, but absolutely nothing happens. Well, that's not entirely true: every once in a while, a Japanese person does something so unbelievably wacky and nonsensical that it strikes you as cheap if not outright racist. As a storyteller Coppola has nothing interesting to say and takes two hours to say it. I'm a huge Bill Murray fan and I thought it was mostly a waste of his talents, and a waste of time.
L.I.T. is a good example of a film that is praised as an insightful "character study" yet it told me very little about the characters. There's a lot of meaningful stares and longing looks, but we don't really get to know who these people are, because the movie is so light on details that actually matter, so light on action, and so preoccupied with its mood. Of course "action" can manifest itself in many ways, and the importance of an action may seem small but may be set up to have dire consequences. In this movie, for example, the act of simply knocking on a hotel door, or of sending your husband carpet swatches, are filled with more meaning than they would be in any other movie. Those moments were good. But it also had so much filler, including many meaningless, wordless minutes of sightseeing and lying around, and the aforementioned "aren't those Japanese wacky" moments, and a long, long scene where they sing Karaoke. For me it wasn't nearly enough. I don't need (or even want) a formulaic Hollywood story, but a good movie goes somewhere, and build in some way to something. For a highly praised art film, I was just surprised at how ultimately insignificant L.I.T. was. 3/10.
Training Day (2001)
More plot holes than bullet holes
I'm not really sure what the point of this movie was, other than to look cool and to give Denzel a badass persona with which to chew the scenery. The characters make reference to the "chess game" going on between them, but it's really a game of kick the can. They only manage to keep it moving forward one hour, at which point it just could becomes a big checkers endgame, full of black-leather gold-chain-danglin' fury, signifying nothing. This movie pistol whips you with countless racial stereotypes, and F's you up with an anticlimactic, silly ending that would be satisfying only after a hit of PCP-laced dope. The friends who recommended this to me ought get their own special brand of "street justice". Garbage.
South Park (1997)
Keeps Getting Better
This very smart satire keeps getting better. Trey Parker & Co. aren't afraid to take on any subject, whether it's Iraq, the Catholic chruch, Stem Cell research, or whether John Edward is in fact the biggest douche in the universe (answer: Yes). The humor and comic timing are also stronger than ever, which can't be said of the Simpsons. It's smarter, more relevant, and funnier than the Simpsons, and better than South Park has ever been. Keep up the awesome work, Trey.
Far from Heaven (2002)
Trapped in the 50's
The more I think about this little film, the more I like it. Every detail is done so well, with such care, that it gives you no alternative but to accept the reality that this film presents you. I know this movie is not supposed to be like "Pleasantville," but it begs comparison, because it is another look at the 50's, but this time with a completely unironic presentation. I prefer "Far from Heaven". It uses the same device of "being trapped in the perfect world of the 50's", but it's real, and it forces you to realize that the problems and the consequences of peoples' choices are not just trapped in this time period -- there's a universality to it. It makes you feel claustrophobic, and empathetic for Julianne Moore. Loved the production design and the score, and the acting. Dennis Quaid is making quite a comeback.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Ambitious and trifling at the same time
I'm torn on this one. I really like movies that have a crystal clear idea of what they want to look and sound like, and I respect Wes Anderson for giving us a very beautifully artistic movie -- it's much more polished than Rushmore, which I liked very much. Its greatest strength is its STYLE; Royal Tenenbaums is stylized down to every detail, including the 70's soundtrack, the sparingly clever dialogue, the locations which say New York without ever actually saying "New York", the characteristic clothes each character wears: Gwyneth's izod dresses, Ben Stiller's Adidas workout suits, Danny Glover's old-fashioned suits. But at the same time, the style is its weakness; Anderson only treats his subject matter and his characters superficially. This bothers me mostly in retrospect -- I know I was smiling while I was watching this movie, and I was admiring what Anderson was giving us and not hung up on what he wasn't. So on the one hand, I can't give it a negative review, because it is fun to watch, but on the other hand there's that "So what?" feeling you get after you've seen it.
Lower Your Expectations
Episode II is better than Episode I, like getting an enema is better than getting disemboweled. Again, Lucas has given us a half-hearted attempt at a real motion picture, a galaxy far, far away from the original trilogy. This film looks like a low budget production of a string of unrehearsed first takes, shot with the script's first draft, edited together hastily, and layered with $125M of state of the art digital effects. We should all expect more from our entertainment.
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
A lot of fun!
Saw this one on the plane (which, by its inescapability, could make a bad movie seem worse, and a good one transcendant), and loved it. It is funny, the way a cartoon should be, in the Chuck Jones style. Witty, fast-paced, and with a heart. See it with your buddies, young or old.
Feed the Kitty (1952)
Best 6-minute cartoon ever
Chuck Jones has finally been given proper credit for his enormous contribution to animation, from Bugs Bunny to the Grinch, but not everyone is aware of this 6-minute gem which doesn't feature any of the famous WB characters. "Feed the Kitty" is a simple play on the dog/cat cartoon rivalry: a gruff bulldog named Marc Anthony unexpectedly falls in love with a little fluffy kitten. Simple enough concept, but the range of emotion expressed by this silly dog trying to protect his "pet" makes me laugh and cry upon each viewing. I'm given to superlative language when discussing Chuck Jones, but I honestly think it's the most wonderful 6 minutes of animation you're likely to see.
Don't have kids? Don't bother
I really expected greatness from Shrek, so perhaps I'm not the best person to give a review. On the other hand, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's read the overwhelmingly glowing reviews from the media. So for those of you who expect Shrek to be an unparalleled triumph, be forewarned: it's not. It's just a good movie to take your kids to.
The animation is undeniably sophisticated and sharp, but you can't last 90 minutes on technique. There needs to be a good story. The story of Shrek does expand on William Steig's 32-page children's story, but not enough to warrant the length. Take away the pokes at fairy-tale conventions and pot-shots at Disney, take away the (often very funny) wisecracking Eddie Murphy as the Donkey, and it boils down to a 15 minute hero-rescues-the-princess plot.
Having said that, I wasn't really ever bored watching it. I just thought with all the time and effort they spent on the visuals, they could have taken more care to make it a more interesting story. It doesn't hold an ear-wax candle to Toy Story 2 and Chicken Run.
Before Sunrise (1995)
This is one of my favorite movies of all time. I don't think I could ever get tired of it or not be moved by some part of it. The story is so simple, but I've never seen or heard of another movie like it -- a document of two people meeting on a train in Europe, deciding to spend the day with each other and falling in love. There's a line in the movie which goes:
I believe if there's any kind of God, it wouldn't be in any of us. Not you, or me... but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, its almost impossible to succeed, but... who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.
The movie is filled with intelligent lines like this between two intelligent, likable, complicated, confused people, just contemplating life and each other, which just hit me with their truth and beauty. It sounds cornball, I know. Ultimately, Before Sunrise may be nothing if not a test of how sappily romantic you are. But I think objectively it succeeds because it walks the line so artfully between realism and romanticism, and I think you have to be a little bit of both to like it: knowing how unlikely it is for a stranger on a train to change your life, but allowing for the possibility, and rooting for people who take it when it comes.
There's a voyeuristic element to the film, like My Dinner With Andres, or a documentary, where you're just listening to people talking, and it wouldn't be anything worth mentioning if it weren't so beautifully written, and completely believable. I normally don't like Ethan Hawke, but he's very good in this. And if you're a red-blooded male, you have no choice but to fall in love with Julie Delpy. A must see.
Wo hu cang long (2000)
Good, not great
If you're looking for a good kung-fu action pic with some elements of story and character development which you don't normally find in a kung-fu action pic, see Crouching Tiger. But if you're expecting a great story, you may be disappointed. The fight scenes are definitely spectactular, and the much-heralded bending of the laws of gravity is neat (if overused), but DO NOT EXPECT THIS TO BE AN EMOTIONALLY INVOLVING MOVIE. It's just not. The acting is good, but the story does not let you into the minds of any of these characters. The one exception is the 20-30 minute Flashback In The Desert, where young Jen resists and eventually falls in love with the roguish loner guy. That was compelling storytelling. But essentially there's not much else to the story. I didn't buy the romance between Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat, and without spoiling the ending, I think that this storyline, and the whole movie, ended quite unsatisfyingly. Maybe certain things don't translate from East to West very well, but I couldn't help but think that this is yet another lesson in Don't Believe The Hype. 8 out of 10.
Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Really Good
Yet another case of a pretty good movie not living up to its sizeable hype. This was a smart, engaging, entertaining movie with some big laughs, and some nice little moments, but ultimately, it's a shallow film that leaves you when you leave the theater.
While 15-year-old William is struggling with whether he should write a fluff piece or a hard-hitting article about the band he's become friends with on the road, director Cameron Crowe himself has no such quandary. He's happy to be completely reverent, not necessarily about the band, but about the whole rock world of the '70s. The entire movie has this glow of nostalgic reverence, and this is the best and worst thing about Almost Famous. The best, because all of the detail in the costumes, sets, characterizations and attitudes are so rich and specific; but the worst because Crowe is afraid to show us anything truly controversial. It seems that Crowe wants to show the effects of living in the insular bubble of a rock tour, but he's not questioning it; he's rarely willing to go outside it because it is too fun, and mostly harmless fun at that. The scenes in which we see jealous infighting among the band members seem trivial, because we know that the characters are too happy where they are to think about giving it up. The closeups of the wife Billy Crudup cheats on, and the frantic Frances McDormand's lectures as an unbelievably overbearing Mom, aren't quite enough to make this story compelling.
So in comparing this movie with Jerry Maguire and Say Anything, I have to prefer the older ones. Maybe this is just a matter of personal taste, but Crowe seems to be at his sharpest when his heroes rise up from adversity: Jerry Maguire's need to be ethical in a world where ethics don't seem to matter anymore; Lloyd Dobbler's devotion to a girl he should never have gotten to be with, and her own struggle with what is right. Even the screenplay of Fast Times at Ridgemont High has these teenagers searching for something real in a shallow mall culture. But in Almost Famous, William is dealt such a great hand -- incredible intelligence and a week of Rock Star partying -- that the growing pains he endures aren't much more than any 15-year-old would would feel. The arc of the story is mostly smooth sailing.
But like I said, it's an enjoyable if not very bumpy ride. And all of the performances are good, especially Philip S. Hoffman as Lester Bangs -- frame for frame, line for line, no one packs nearly as much humor and depth into their role. Patrick Fugit is always engaging, but he never really hits the highs and lows you want as William -- he's mostly a gee-whiz witness to the mayhem around him.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray at his best
I've always liked Bill Murray, especially as the egotistical-but-lovable guy he plays in just about everything he's ever done (but most notably, in Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters). But he takes it to a higher level in Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day," owing to a fantastic script which perfectly executes the story's clever premise, and makes perfect use of the Lovable Jerk persona as a springboard for a real character-driven story. I can't imagine the movie being done with another actor in the lead role, and that is, I think, one of the more remarkable things about it. Everything, including the casting, fits together so well.
The premise of living out the same day over and over again is a very "high" concept, but ironically, the story works because the characters are so believable. Not many comedies would have its hero try to commit suicide over and over again, only to wake up alive, saying, "Ah, nuts."
Even the usually unbearably bland Andie Macdowell is a three-dimensional, charming and believable foil/love interest. I credit Ramis and Murray for bringing out the best in her. While I'm being superlative, let me go on record to say that the film's big comic payoff, when Phil tries to get Rita (Macdowell) into bed through what must be months of conversational scheming, is one of the funniest 15 minutes in film history.
I would call this the most underrated comedy of the 90's, if it wasn't on TV so damn much. But I watch it every time it is, and I still marvel at how close it is to perfection.
Best Woody film
Manhattan is the standard by which all of Woody Allen's -- and everyone else's -- movies about relationships should be judged. It's funny, touching, sad, and profound, and I find something new in it every time I watch it (which is well past 20 times at this point). Relationships and life are messy and complex, and Woody's narrative shows this so effortlessly, I think, that people overlook how complex and elegant this movie is. It's also shot beautifully in B&W, and the all-Gershwin soundtrack is sublime. As always, Woody's story and character are semi-autobiographical, and in retrospect, his real-life affair with/marriage to Soon-Yi makes his relationship in the story to a 17-year old Mariel Hemingway a little needlessly weighty. But still, it ranks as my all-time favorite movie to watch alone.
The Green Mile (1999)
This is clearly a well-made movie, with good intentions, but it's easily an hour too long. You could actually read most of the book in three hours. And with the ample lighting provided by people checking their Indiglo Watches, you could actually do it in the theatre. If there were more to uncover about the characters in the story, I might have better tolerated the length. But I don't know any more about these people than I did in the first 15 seconds in which they were introduced. They are either Very Good, or Very, Very, Insanely, Ridiculously Bad. Admittedly, Stephen King has never been the master of character depth, but he has never been this predictable. You don't need to go farther than John Coffey's initials to tell you what's going to happen to him. Props to Michael Duncan and Michael Jeter for powerful commitment to their one-dimensional roles.
Well I thought Hard Eight was a better film than Boogie Nights, and I feel once again that P.T. Anderson has taken a step backward with Magnolia. It seems that with Anderson, bigger stars and bigger budgets make for less clear storytelling, more padding, and less of an ultimate point to the movie. Magnolia is a very ambitious work technically, but he did nothing to rein in the performances, or the 3 hour length. This movie would have been much improved with some serious edits. It ends up being a very beautifully shot, well-scored, multi-layered, three hour lecture about bad parenting. Tom Cruise does give a very entertaining performance as an out-of-control guy's guy. It's easy to see why this kind of role works when you consider that Anderson did nothing to hold his actors back. Julianne Moore and Melora Walters, on the other hand, suffer the most, because their roles are very thin and their acting (i.e., shouting) is relentlessly, annoyingly, very loud. Maybe fewer characters would have served Anderson's purpose a little better. But economy was not the motive here -- why have one aging TV exec father who is dying of cancer when you can have two? The plague of frogs falling from the sky embodies my point: technically and visually very unique and appealing idea, with absolutely no point to it.
The Limey (1999)
Most Overlooked of 1999
A very stylish, very original, and very satisfying film which no one I know ever heard about. (I chalk this up to the absence of marketing.) I am very glad to see Soderbergh picking up right where he left off with Out Of Sight. This time, the whole movie has the dreamlike feel of the romantic interlude between Lopez & Clooney in O.O.S., thanks to sharp editing and innovative non-linear storytelling. This style actually works very well with the plot, because we're trying to figure out what's going on while the main character tries to uncover the mystery of his murdered daughter. Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda give understated but powerful performances in 3-dimensional roles. A real treat for film lovers. 9/10
Come on, Kevin, grow up
Kevin Smith has got to feel pretty lucky. Who else has made a career not only in spite of, but perhaps because of, such sloppy filmmaking? At least you could excuse the poor acting and wordy, precious dialogue of "Clerks" as the efforts of a low-budget rising indie filmmaker. For all of its flaws, it was a charming, fun movie, with memorable lines and Hey-I-know-guys-just-like-that! realism to it.
But years later, with a major league budget, Smith is making many of the same mistakes, and nobody is telling him it's wrong! "Dogma" is just as verbose and self-satisfied, the characters are just as thinly drawn, and even the best of Hollywood actors (Matt Damon! Linda Fiorentino! Alan Rickman!) can't keep the pace from plodding. Particularly annoying was Kevin, his own cutesy, camera-mugging self as "Silent Bob" -- his inability to see his own overacting (in a mute role!) pretty much personifies the lack of awareness and discipline of "Dogma" as a film. I am appalled that so many people have such allegiance to Kevin Smith because of a soft spot for comic-book/pop-culture references. It's one thing to like a guy for liking the same movies you do; it's another to confuse it with an understanding of the craft itself.
As you can tell, this movie actually makes me a little angry in retrospect. But while I was watching it in the theater, the strongest feeling I had was boredom. The story was flat, and the only thing the characters could do was talk, talk, talk. This might have been a mildly interesting 1 1/2 hour movie with a good script doctor and an objective editor, but it would seem Mr. Smith has too much pride and/or too much creative control to cut any extraneous words or frames. For example, as much as I love to look at Salma Hayek, her character didn't need to be there. Nor did a monster made entirely of excrement, who appears and dies in the same scene, for no reason, with no purpose, other than to be disgusting.
Okay, there were a couple of laughs, most notably delivered by two of the more believable characters, Rufus (Chris Rock) and Jay (Jason Mewes). But they were so few and far between, in the end, it didn't amount to much.
Great Details, Poor Storytelling
I am surprised that so many critics are so taken by the details of this film that they have overlooked the big picture -- that the story of "Topsy Turvy" is not told with any particular purpose, and the main characters aren't developed beyond what we see in the first hour of this overlong (160 minutes!) film. For example, we are introduced to Sullivan at the begininng as a frail man whose artistic aspirations aren't being met by his partnership with Gilbert, and then, once Gilbert comes up with the idea for the "Mikado" (the story of which is described in a minute-long "pitch meeting"), Sullivan is happy again, and the story more or less ignores their relationship, and shifts into a "Making Of" exercise. To be sure, the details in the second half are exquisite, from the sets and costumes to the nuances of rehearsing and staging the "Mikado" itself. But the over 2 1/2 hour length of the film could have provided more emotional payoff. I would have preferred to see the "Mikado" in its entirety, or to have watched "Shakespeare In Love" again.
Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Mostly good, one great, one terrible
I'd heard mostly mixed reviews before I went to see "F2K", and my review follows suit. I suspect that most native New Yorkers, like myself, will find the Rhapsody in Blue piece the most stirring, the funniest, and the truest to the spirit of the original Fantasia (despite the fact that its subjects are people, and not animals or abstract images). Very clever use of Hirschfeld-style line drawings, and 4 storylines which cleverly interweave, making for a playful, improvisational style that matches Gershwin's own playful phrasing. It's also quite unexpectedly the most romantic and moving piece.
I will not elaborate on my least favorite segment, "The Pines Of Rome", other than to say that those whales were as sterile and artless as the microchips with which they were created.
A note on the celebrity guest stars: they made it all seem more like an awards show than an event created for its own sake. This was slightly distracting.
Overall, I'd recommend it, but wait for the non-IMAX release, or video.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Very good, but not exactly uplifting
Let me start off by saying "Being John Malkovich" IS a very good movie. It's one of the most interesting, unusual and thought-provoking films I've seen this year. I still can't believe Malkovich himself agreed to star in it, and I still have the sublimely ridiculous themes and surreal images I saw a week ago in my head. The acting is solid, the directing is good, the writing is sharp and the story is compelling.
So why wasn't I wholly satisfied by this movie? Why do I feel now, as I did when the credits were rolling, that something was missing, and that this work is overrated? Well, having some distance, I think I've figured it out. It has to do with sympathy for the characters. Basically, I didn't have any.
Each character is flawed to such a degree, through greed, selfishness, and insecurity, that he/she ultimately comes off as a two-dimensional puppet. I found it impossible to put myself in anyone's shoes, ironically, because none of them are comfortable in their own. The characters who succeed are the ones who are the most adept at using and abusing the other characters, and, of course, at abusing the body of John Malkovich. Catherine Keener's character makes a point in the film about how there are those who "take what they want, and then there's everybody else" (I'm paraphrasing). That point is explored in the film, but ultimately, the message (and I only mention this because the film does have philosophical aims) becomes "It's a dog-eat-dog world out there". There is no love, no moral anchor. And that's why, despite its very clear style and simple but intriguing plot, I couldn't totally get into it.
The characters go through changes which are wholly believable and uplifting. Rent it.
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
Not a Triumph
Going in, I knew this film was not going to be as informative as the PBS documentary "Triumph of the Nerds", but the surprising thing was how much more dramatic and interesting "Triumph" was than this uninspired gloss-over of the same material. Maybe, as has been suggested, a 2-hour movie (which is only 85 minutes with commercials) is not enough to satisfactorily explore the details of the Jobs/Gates rivalry. But this movie doesn't have any of the sharpness, wit, or interesting details of the true story to make it worth seeing.
Just plain bad
Being a 27-year-old whose first impressions of great, exciting filmmaking were largely shaped by the first trilogy, I can honestly (and sadly) say "The Phantom Menace" does not fit among them. I could spend hours dissecting the individually poor decisions made in the scripting and directing of this film (from the very first confusing, hastily edited "trade negotiation" scene all the way to the accidental heroism of Anakin and Jar Jar), but the only thing that seems to matter now is that I never felt that I was involved in the action or emotionally invested in any of the characters. And isn't that why we go to see movies -- to be gripped by a story about people we can identify with?
Now I know that many people did enjoy this film, and I'm not going to deny that, or try to prove that these feelings are somehow less legitimate than mine. But I hope that people understand that glossy CG effects do not make up for sloppiness in writing and directing.
Even the best "kid's movies", such as Babe, Toy Story, Antz and The Little Mermaid can appeal to adults, but this film was aimed directly at children, to the exclusion of a thinking, mature audience, and one, coincidentally, who has been waiting 16 years for this film.
I can only pray that Lucas -- who has stated that he made this movie for his own children -- will realize the error of his ways, and will concentrate on thoughtful story, dialogue, editing and acting in the next two Episodes.