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Too slow, too conventional
I can see why a story like this might have been edgier and more important when it first appeared in the early 1950s. But things have changed a lot since then. The affair between the two women would not be a big deal today, which means the message that a movie about it carries today is, "Look how backwards and repressive things were in the 1950s" (or in some such stories, the early '60s). That's become a hackneyed theme, one that we've seen it in any number of other movies -- "Dead Poets Society" and "Brokeback Mountain," to name just two off the top of my head.
Still, what we have here would be an interesting period piece -- the look certainly seems convincingly '50s -- except that it's so slow at times that it's like flipping through an album of still pictures. This seems to me a common failing of movies based on celebrated "literary" novels: not enough actually happens. The elements that give the novel its reputation are likely its elegant writing, its compelling narrative voice and the interior lives of its characters, and those are precisely the things you can't really put on film. So the filmmakers work around this by substituting long pauses, "meaningful" gazes, lingering shots, and painterly compositions (this film's have been compared to Edward Hopper's). I sometimes felt as if the many silent beats between lines of dialogue in this movie were filled up in the filmmakers' heads with the book's prose, which maybe they should have scrolled across the screen or something so the rest of us could experience it too.
Then there's the Lifetime-movie-esque plot about the main character Carol's custody dispute. Those events point up how unfair it was when gay relationships were closeted, but again, that's not a groundbreaking insight anymore. Nothing else is interesting about them, and the filmmakers themselves seem so little invested in that part of the story that when she's asked toward the end whether she's been allowed to visit her daughter, Carol gives this unbelievable answer: "Once or twice." Once or twice? This was so important to you, this was the thing you were fighting for, and yet you shrug it off now with "once or twice," like you can't even be bothered to remember? In Patricia Highsmith's novel, her answer is: "Yes, last Sunday for an hour or so." That's what a mother who actually cared about the kid would remember: exactly when she saw her and for how long. But the writer and director here would rather make nonsense of all her earlier protestations. For them, the husband was just the "heavy," a typical domineering control freak like those in any number of TV movies, and the daughter -- as a friend I saw the film with put it -- was basically just a prop.
I give it 4 stars for its evocation of the period and because I like Cate Blanchett. In short, though: beautiful pictures, but a conventional, slow-paced story, and an unfortunate tendency to stoop to stereotypes. Once or twice.
Not what it could have been
Rusty Griswold, now married and middle-aged, packs his complaining family into another barely roadworthy vehicle to reprise the cross-country "Wally World" adventure he remembers from his own youth 30 years earlier. For a remake, that's a great premise; it's just too bad they couldn't come up with a better script. There are a few good jokes, including two or three in the movie's very first minute, but almost nothing in the next 98 that tops those. (One highlight: a set piece involving territorial state troopers at the "Four Corners" monument; stick through the closing credits to see how that one comes out.)
So, overall, it's cruder and less funny than I had hoped. But I give it a 6/10 anyway, because Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are always likable, the Lindsay Buckingham / "Holiday Road" opening credit sequence is terrific on a big screen, and there's a sprinkling of apt (though uneven) reminders of the original "Vacation," including one sequence featuring the original Griswolds, Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo. Most of all, despite enough filthy jokes and language to fill several Wagon Queen Family Trucksters, the movie preserves what I have come to appreciate most about the whole "Vacation" series: the well-deserved, sentimental tribute it pays to a great unsung hero, the Middle American Dad -- a man on a mission, bound and determined to make sure the whole family has a good time whether they like it or not.
Welcome to Me (2014)
A show within a show about borderline insanity
"Welcome to Me" is both the name of this film and the name of the TV show whose making it chronicles. In fact that show is most of the story. Alice (Kristen Wiig) buys the TV time and the services of a production company with the fortune she wins in the lottery. A fan of Oprah, she wants her own personal obsessions showcased on a TV talk and variety show. But Alice has Borderline Personality Disorder and has gone off her medications, so the show resembles her in being more than a little crazy.
This premise makes for some occasional comic moments. There are echoes of Martin Scorcese's underrated "The King of Comedy" and its main character, Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro), another crazed obsessive with a fixation on talk shows. But "Welcome to Me" goes a different way. Its main purpose seems to be to demonstrate that Kristen Wiig can play serious roles too. Beyond that, it's not clear what the film is trying to deliver. The show-within-a-show is an interesting approach to character study: it externalizes Alice's obsessions, taking them out of her head and putting them on a sound stage -- a vivid way of allowing us to see and partly experience them. They remain, however, mildly crazy obsessions, symptoms of a disease that needs treatment, not televising. Perhaps they give us some insights into abnormal psychology; but if "Welcome to Me" has any lesson or larger message, it would seem to be that people ought not to go off their meds.
She's Funny That Way (2014)
A movie about other movies
I wandered into this in a theater in Europe without realizing it was the work of Peter Bogdanovich. Even without knowing that, though, it was obvious that the movie was trying to recapture the spirit of the old screwball farce comedies, with many unsubtle allusions -- like a private detective in a Pink Panther getup, or a cameo by a famous director also known for borrowing from old films -- that were meant to clue us in that the whole thing was a riff on movies and filmmaking themselves. The problem is that the classic comedies of Hawks, Sturges, Lubitsch and the like, at their best, had something besides farcical events: great, witty writing, truly funny moments (not just "funny coincidences"), a clearer send-up of wealth and social class. I'm struggling to remember anything like that in "She's Funny That Way." It's just a few hours later, and I can't recall a single line (other than the one that keeps getting repeated, which we learn is also from an old movie). It had the right sort of situation, setting, musical underscoring, and the requisite "zany" characters and plot, but it felt to me kind of like an empty shell, the outward mold of a screwball comedy still waiting to be poured full of the really good stuff.
Only God Forgives (2013)
The director has confused Orientalist clichés for high art
OK, I get that the incredibly slow pace -- the characters pose like statues, and everyone stares into space for half a minute or so before delivering a line -- is intentional, that this director thinks he's the second coming of Stanley Kubrick. The difference is that Kubrick actually had something new and interesting to say. What is "Only God Forgives" trying to say? That there are some people in the criminal underworld who are messed up, who had bad mothers or brothers, who know they're sinners and want to atone? I've seen all that before. More importantly, I've seen "the Orient" depicted exactly this way before -- in fact it's how Westerners have been condescending to the Far East for generations. (See "Orientalism" by Edward Said.) So, we're in Bangkok -- naturally -- which is essentially one big red-light district (literally: every scene is lit in red), the only businesses are fighting, drug dealing and prostitution, and there's no rule of law to speak of. Instead, there's a senior police officer who goes around exacting justice on his own with some kind of ceremonial sword, which he wields using moves learned from some ancient discipline (didn't catch the name, but I think it's called "bulshido"). I mean, how about just calling him Hop Sing and giving him a funny accent while we're at it? I expect these sorts of clichés in direct-to-DVD B-movies, and maybe in a movie like "Hangover II" where they're being made fun of in some way. But at this late date, to see them in a serious, significant Hollywood release, a Cannes entrant, is pretty shameful.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)
Essentially a remake of "The Blair Witch Project"
The situation here closely resembles that of "The Blair Witch Project": a group of twentysomething documentarians sets out into the wilderness to solve a possibly supernatural mystery, unknown forces cause them to lose their bearings, things go terribly wrong, someone or something is chasing them, there's a spooky abandoned building, and we're supposedly seeing these events through "found footage" from the documentarians' video camera. We even get a night-vision recording of the terrified female protagonist in hiding, a moment clearly borrowed from the most famous shot in "Blair Witch." That said, "Dyatlov" is definitely the better movie; it helps a lot to have professional actors, a competent (if not brilliant) professional script, a spectacular mountain setting, and several million bucks to spend on better production values. Compared to the anticlimax of "Blair Witch," the final sequences are creepy and mostly effective. Overall, I'm rating "Dyatlov" a bit above average -- not a horror movie for the ages, but not the weirdly over-hyped home movie that was "Blair Witch."
The reanimated corpse of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"
Despite the title, this is not Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." It's the reanimated corpse of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," stitched together with various horror-movie conventions that didn't exist yet in Shelley's time, partly because we've come to know them from other film versions of "Frankenstein." For instance, early in the novel, the 17-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins university and has a couple of quiet office conversations with Professors Krempe and Waldman, neither of whom are medical doctors. He then skips Krempe's lectures and attends only the more inspiring Waldman's. Here, we get the thirty-something (!) Branagh confronting Krempe in a lecture / operating theater, loudly demanding instruction in the ancient theories of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus -- theories that the novel's Victor had already given up on. It's a flashier scene, it's very Hollywood, and it may be "inspired by" Shelley's version, but it nearly reverses the novel's point, scrambling its analysis of how Victor ends up going wrong.
The portrayal of the Creature also messes with the story's moral. Yes, he's played for sympathy in a way that's in line with the novel; this may be how Branagh and Coppola convinced themselves that they were doing Shelley's version. But as others here have noted, DeNiro, even with a Bronx accent, is not frightening enough. OK, so he's got some facial scars -- he's not eight feet tall, he doesn't look overpowering, and he seems too obviously decent to suddenly start killing people. Granted, it would be hard even for a great actor to capture the eloquent and well- read yet savage beast that Shelley imagines, but you at least need to make him look frightening enough that we can understand people attacking him and fleeing in terror. The fact that he's "ugly," as he puts it, isn't enough to explain the tragedy. In that regard, a more "traditional" Halloween or horror-movie Frankenstein might actually have served the story better.
There are other very big changes, especially late in the story, but I won't give them away. If you leave Shelley out of it -- and in fairness, the producers should have left her out of the title -- and if you overlook a number of things that don't make much sense, then it's a glossy and reasonably entertaining version of "Frankenstein." But it's not Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," it's another in a long line of loose adaptations.
The Lookout (2007)
A heartwarming tale of a young man who gets all his friends killed
The moral scheme of this film is just incomprehensible. We're supposed to feel bad for a guy who killed two of his friends and maimed another by driving irresponsibly. He emerged intact, but it's supposed to be OK because he suffers some problems with memory and has to write things down. Then he joins a gang planning a bank robbery. He knows this is wrong, as is clear from his initial resistance, but goes along anyway to spite his dad. The robbery gets another friend of his killed, a deputy sheriff who used to bring him donuts. That's actually felony murder, but it's OK because the kid felt bad about it and tried to warn off the deputy at the last moment. And then, instead of ratting out the gang to the cops, as a responsible citizen would do, the kid takes matters into his own hands, which brings his current best friend within two seconds of getting killed. But it's OK, because he shoots the bad guy and is last seen "getting on with my life." Well good, because unfortunately all the people you got killed won't be getting on with theirs.
Web of Lies (2009)
OK, it's a TV movie, and the locales and accents all but scream "filmed in Canada." Still, I found it remarkably compelling. I was visiting Bulgaria, where it happened to appear on a TV channel after 1 a.m., and although I wasn't intending to watch the whole thing I wound up doing so anyway. So, it kept me involved.
As to the "penny-shaving" scheme another commenter mentioned, this goes back even further, because I remember it being the basis of a "Dragnet" episode that must have first aired in the late '50s or early '60s. Again, though, I found the plot as developed in this movie believable. Oldies but goodies, right?
A movie that tries to have things both ways
Since there are apparently different versions of this film out there, I should say that I saw the one narrated by James Earl Jones. I also saw it on a big screen, which did show off the truly spectacular cinematography to great advantage. And I suppose the ecological message won't do any harm, although as some other commenters here have noted, it was expressed fairly superficially; the filmmakers seem to hope that if they just remind us how beautiful the Earth is, then we'll want to save it, and that will somehow translate into the right kinds of attitudes and policies. OK, whatever.
The more serious problem I had with the movie is that it wanted to have things both ways. Some of the comments here defend it as merely showing reality, i.e. the fact that nature is violent and that it pits predators against prey. If it only did that, I'd say, fine. But what it does is more disturbing: It uses all kinds of narrative and artistic devices to humanize and anthropomorphize the animals depicted, to get us to attach to them emotionally and to encourage our "rooting interest" in them. It makes them characters in little dramas, calling them "moms" and "dads" and "babies," describing their activities through human metaphors (e.g., mating rituals as "going on dates"), cuing ominous music when predators appear in the distance, and using lots of slo-mo to heighten the drama of certain moments. And then, having made them virtually into cute, furry people like in the "Ice Age" cartoons, it lets them get slaughtered.
Well, sorry, but that's not showing "reality," it's highly manipulative. I can certainly see how young children could be traumatized: The filmmakers do everything but give the "babies" funny voices and cute little names, and they get us to laugh at the funny animal dances and go "awww" at all the cuteness. Then they narrate a predator's chase to make it as suspenseful as possible. And then, they cut away just as the cute little baby is about to get chomped to death.
Apparently aware that they've made everyone sad, the filmmakers then try to redeem all this by giving the film a feel-good ending -- celebrating the way the "spirit" of a polar bear "dad" (that died of starvation, having failed to kill some baby walruses) will "live on" in his cubs, and reminding us of how glorious is "LIFE" with a closing montage of slow-mo shots reprising earlier scenes (including, weirdly, a giant shark jumping out of the water with a seal caught in its mouth; perhaps the filmmakers forgot that for the seal, "LIFE" means getting chewed to bits at that moment).
Bottom line, it's a movie for kids that will traumatize at least some kids. It should certainly be rated PG, not G, and parents should preview it before deciding whether it's right for their children.
OK, explain this to me again?
Most reviewers don't focus on, if they even mention, the *ideas* a movie is based on or the philosophy it expresses. Maybe film-goers don't care about such things, but I tend to think that the underlying illogic in a story damages the experience it's able to give us. "Perfume" is apparently supposed to be some kind of meditation on beauty, obsession, talent, love, etc. But what is it telling us about any of this? The film seems to imply vaguely that its antihero's obsessive quest came to good in the end despite the unfortunate detail that it involved a bunch of cold-blooded murders. Or maybe it's saying that the rediscovery of love also involves tragedy, or something like that. But whatever, how can I feel the truth of this insight if the vehicle for it is a story that makes no sense, even on its own terms?
To avoid spoilers, I can't point out everything that's preposterous here, but consider just the key premise: We're supposed to believe that (a) the greatest possible aroma could be achieved by distilling dead bodies (wait, don't those usually smell *bad*?), and (b) the "essence" distilled from beautiful young women would somehow be better than anyone else's. (If beautiful women tend to smell better, I'd assume it's because they've put ON perfume, not that they should BECOME perfume.) And then, of course, it's the socially highest-ranking woman whose essence is the best and most vital of all. If you take away these premises -- if you assume, for instance, that the most aromatically useful essence would actually come from male pig farmers in their 30s with lots of back hair -- then this story evaporates faster than you can say "Chanel." And if the story's premise isn't true, how can its message be?
At least the film pioneered a technique we've never seen before -- the "macro-zoom" or sudden, extreme enlargement of things we can't otherwise see, including internal body organs. Wait ... what that's you say? There are already at least three TV detective series based on that very trick? Never mind.
The worst-commanded space mission of all time
As others here have pointed out, this is basically a monster/horror film. It has "philosophical" pretensions, but they're not very compelling because it's pointless to philosophize about events that would never happen even granting the movie's premise (i.e. that the sun is "dying"). I mean, if you're putting together a trillion-dollar mission to save the Earth, who would you crew it with? Cool, extremely disciplined, seasoned professional pilots, engineers and scientists -- y'know, like the ones NASA picks, or like the guys in "2001" -- or this group of yammering neurotics? Sure, real astronauts are boring, but that's the point: You WANT a mission like this to be boring; that's how it succeeds. That's also why command decisions are left to commanders, not turned over to crewmen (like the clown in charge of this mission does); it's why astronauts aren't so incredibly undisciplined and stupid as to risk injury by getting into fistfights; and it's why any remotely complex maneuver, like changing course, involves several people and a CHECKLIST, not one guy who's expected to keep all the procedures in his head. (And please do NOT tell me that the fights, mistakes, crackups, etc. are the result of all the months in space. You know how long real astronauts spend in space these days, and in much more cramped quarters, without any lapses in professionalism? In this movie's world, human beings are apparently so emotionally fragile that you can't even find eight or so who can be adequately trained for the stresses ahead.) If you want "characters" on your movie spaceship, then you need to do what the makers of "Armageddon" did and find a reason for putting them there (like, the killer asteroid is fast approaching, and only this particular motley crew of oil-drillers has the specific expertise needed to destroy it -- and even then, they have to undergo a lot of training). By foregoing plausibility, "Sunshine" just makes its philosophizing phony; it's not thought-provoking to wonder why stupid consequences follow from stupid decisions by stupid people.