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Jaime N. Christley
Getting Started (1979)
One of the funniest cartoons I've ever seen
This short animated film deserves a brief comment, but most certainly a complimentary one. The premise (or "plot") involves a concert pianist trying to get ready for a major recital. The pianist is a ridiculous, "cartoon-ish" character, while the room around him is painted like a Monet. The humor of the piece comes from his countless, failed attempts to actually sit down and practice - not due to outside forces, but because of his own procrastination. And when he does sit down to play (and he is capable of playing quite brilliantly, which is shocking, considering how silly he is drawn), he keeps messing up and getting angry.
What I find to be so wonderful, apart from the humor, is the way that "Getting Started" so perfectly portrays procrastination, realistically, and with deft timing. The film is light, meaningless fun, but it is wickedly funny and perfectly constructed. Love it.
Could this be the best film of 2001?
Amazing film. The reviews posted - at the time of this writing - on the IMDb page are sad, because I don't think the writers were ready for what kind of movie it is. (Stephen Holden's pan in the New York Times is especially foolhardy and thoughtless.) It helped to have a little advanced word, in order to brace myself. As it stands, it should have defeated "Dancer in the Dark" at Cannes last year, handily. And if I see a better movie this year, it'll be something for the history books.
It's not for the faint of heart. It's three hours and thirty-seven minutes long, in black and white, and in Japanese. And it's very slow-moving. The cinematography is beautiful, but that may not be enough for folks to hack through nearly four hours.
But the extreme length and slowness is not unjustified. It opens with a horrifying, traumatic event that provides an emotional undercurrent that informs the remainder of the story, in much the same way as "Saving Private Ryan" did (let that not discourage the anti-Spielbergers), and as the film progresses, the event becomes a memory, part of the characters' and ours, too. And the slowness isn't really slowness - it's the playing out of events and interactions as they would happen in real time (the story spans a few months, I believe, perhaps even a year, and maybe more).
"What's the freaking story?" I hear you ask...well, here goes. The opening sequence, which will undoubtedly inspire comparisons and contrasts to "The Sweet Hereafter" (as will the entire film), shows the hijacking of a commuter bus by a businessman pushed over the edge. As the scene unfolds, he has already killed a few passengers, the police are surrounding the bus, and he has used newspapers to block all the windows.
Without revealing too much, the bus driver and two teens - a brother and a sister - survive the incident. The driver (Koji Yakusho, star of "Shall We Dance?" and "The Eel") is shaken deeply, and leaves his brother and parents to wander. The youths' mother runs off with another man, and their father dies soon after in an auto accident - with insurance payments, they can live, but there is no one to watch over them.
I could go into more of the plot - and most critics will, I'm sure - but that isn't really necessary. The key to the movie is that the events seem to be played out as they would in real life, and that the movie camera just "happens to be there" to catch them and tell the story. Sure, this is the goal of all narrative films, but with "Eureka," the process seems to have been reinvented and renewed. The film is longer than most, but not a moment is wasted; it's one of the most efficiently edited movies I've ever seen. Every shot, nuance, glance, spoken word, everything has a reason for being.
There are some who say the movie is too somber, too gloomy. It isn't really. It's somber, sure, but it doesn't strain for it. There is humor - deadpan, mostly - and great joy, too. And if you love great cinema, there is even greater joy!
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
John Wayne as the Swede sailor Ole
It's strange that the best performance John Wayne ever gave on film was one that was not in a western, where he was not in the lead, and where he did not play, essentially, himself. Ask someone what Wayne's best work as an actor was; they look at you strangely, shrug, and walk away. Whenever he tried an accent or a bunch of makeup, he flopped. Here, though, as the Swede sailor Ole, he fits perfectly. His tired face becomes poignant, his tall, forceful presence paints him as a gentle giant, rather than as the salt-of-the-earth cowboy he is best known for.
If the opening shots -- the haunting island music, the wind making everything sway in the night air, the island women flirting with the sailors, the sailors flirting back -- doesn't hook you through the sheer force of ambiance alone, you probably won't like "The Long Voyage Home." If you're expecting an exciting sea adventure with the joe average John Ford job of direction, you'll be disappointed. If you're in the mood for something of a nautical mood piece; the adventures of merchant sailors from bar to bar, the tragedy of being affiliated with the wrong ship, naval warfare in the early twentieth century, etc., check this out.
Within Our Gates (1920)
The earliest surviving film from a black director
"Within Our Gates" is of enormous historical interest as a remnant of a brief period in the early twenties/late teens when there were (due to segregation laws) films made and distributed specifically by and for African-Americans. In this way, it has most deservedly been chosen for placement in the National Film Registry.
By today's standards the film is as silly, half-baked, and paper-thin as something by a high school playwright. The performances are pretty atrocious, but for the most part they are at home with the style of acting that pervaded films of the silent era.
It dealt with provocative issues of the time, such as overt racism, lynching, and the sorry state of education for the black community. Eighty years later we may have done a bit of shoring up, but no one's foolish enough to say that we're doing any better today. One positive thing that can be said is that a film dealing with these subjects today is encouraged, whereas in 1920 "Within Our Gates" was crushed by disapproving educators, legislators, and spineless distributors.
In God's Hands (1998)
If it weren't for the stunning footage of surfing in this film, it wouldn't even be worth writing about, let alone watching.
The writing, dialogue and story, is so ghastly, it's difficult to tell what Zalman King was thinking. Does he hate the sport? Did he realize that the highly polished, kinetically charged surfing sequences would have made a great documentary, and so he decided to show his contempt for them by slapping on empty-headed melodrama?
In the beginning there's some ludicrous high jinks in some African country (name of the country? I don't know -- New Orleans, I think, or maybe Hong Kong), followed by some scenes aboard a freighter (a freighter with no discernable purpose, manned by a crew of three), followed by a sequence at a surfer training camp (?), followed by scenes wherein one of the main characters gets struck down with a terrible sickness (yellow fever? small pox? heat cramps?), and then gets well. It ends with a bunch of surfing followed by a bunch of surfing.
The dialogue is hollowed-out, cheesy ersatz Kerouac, mostly from a fellow who talks into a tape recorder for some vague future purpose (Dennis Hopper in "The American Friend," anyone?)
On the upshot, if there was money spent on anything for "In God's Hands," it was the film stock and the cameras. Rarely has cinematography been this glisteningly, unabashedly beautiful, without a specific color scheme suited to the story (i.e. war movies, westerns). It rivals anything John Toll achieved in his photography for "The Thin Red Line." In the end, however, this film is reduced to being a ninety-six minute screen saver, and belongs in the same trash bin as Hype Williams' "Belly" and Claude Lelouche's "A Man and a Woman."
All of Me (1984)
As funny as "Liar, Liar," and without that damn five-year-old
Warning: spoilers within
The premise for "All of Me" is utterly ridiculous, but it's perfectly done. Lily Tomlin plays a proper, prudish rich woman who dies relatively young, and in order to enjoy the active life she never had she arranges to have her soul "transmigrated" into the body of Victoria Tennant. Tennant doesn't mind giving up her mortal coil, because she wants to become one with the universe, though she has a secret agenda that involves the fact that she thinks all the spiritual stuff is hogwash but it'll be worth it to get Tomlin's estate. Lawyer Steve Martin, charged with taking care of Tomlin's legal affairs, accidently gets her soul. They must make a joint effort to operate Martin's body and defeat the evil Tennant character before it's too late. Naturally, trouble ensues and before everything is taken care of, everything gets all crazy and screwy.
The performances are impeccable and very funny; Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin all but match each other for sheer physical, comic audacity (Martin got all the Oscar talk, though, plus every other award in 1984).
The top of the last third drags a bit (a little cutting could've helped), but you probably won't care much, because even then someone has a great line popping up from out of nowhere, or at least a comic spin on an ordinary line. It's great fun, and surprisingly warm-hearted.
Blade Runner (1982)
Good to look at, not much fun
The staggering cult popularity of this film, even seventeen years after its release, is easy to understand. It's a visual masterpiece, a film with a look all its own (most sci-fi fans prefer this to "Dark City"). It has a plentitude of theological and philosophical subtexts, so fans can wax literate about all the "meaning" that it has. It's "2001" for action fans.
The plot (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want spoilers) goes like this: synthetic people called replicants, stationed on the "off-world," are upset with their second-banana position in society and their limited life spans (apparently they were becoming too human), and rebel. They kill a bunch of their human supervisors -- by the way, all this happens before the story begins -- and head to L.A. to meet their maker (get it?), to ask him to extend their life spans past four years. Rick Deckard (sourpuss Harrison Ford), once a champion hunter of replicants, is called back from his retirement to go out and take them down. Along the way he falls in love with a replicant named Rachel (Sean Young -- one of the rebels? we're never really told), but still pursues his quarry. In the end he kills all but one replicant (Rutger Hauer, who's very good here). That replicant has killed the orignal replicant designer, but saves Deckard's life. After this, he (the replicant) expires and shuts down. Deckard returns to his apartment to see if Rachel is still alive. The ambiguous ending tells us that the couple may or may not be hunted by Gaff (Edward James Olmos, playing the Claude Rains role).
For those who find the Greater Meanings to messy, inconsistent, disorganized and overcooked (like me) can still enjoy those primo visuals, and maybe even the Vangelis score, but they probably won't have much fun otherwise. There isn't much in the way of action sequences, though Ridley Scott does include plenty of shooting, bone breaking, skull crushing and eye gouging, and the story is pretty illogical (part of that can be blamed on the altering of some of Philip K. Dick's original ideas). Even for those people, however, "Blade Runner" definitely remains worth a look.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
porno for pyros
Reviewers Kael and Maltin got it right: the one thing this movie likes to do best is show us good looking socialites dying in all sorts of gruesome ways. If you don't find it disgusting, you'll be disgusted at yourself for enjoying it -- and if you enjoy it purely (like me), then something's seriously wrong with you (Jennifer Jones falling out of the glass elevator and bouncing off the lower half of the tower is my factorite).
By no means does this add anything to the cinematic medium on an artistic level, "The Towering Inferno" still features high-quality sound and sound editing, special effects, and photography. Some of the stunts are quite thrilling (Paul Newman sliding down a broken staircase rail without falling off is really something), and you as long as you only see this movie once, you probably won't notice how unbearably long it is.
Mystery Men (1999)
Deflated, messy, with two or three good laughs
Clever premise, clever jokes. Unfortunately, most of the jokes are more clever than they are funny. You stand around admiring them, but you don't laugh.
Some of the jokes are really, really lame -- that is to say, not clever at all. I defy anyone to find wit in fart humor. Most of the audience just groaned. Or skunk-humping-leg humor. Tee-hee. Farrelly brothers, watch out!
Some of this stuff was good. Most of the good lines were spoken (and probably improvised) by Janeane Garofalo, as The Bowler, though William H. Macy has a few choice zingers. Ben Stiller, Paul Reubens and Hank Azaria try hard, but just don't cut it.
"Mystery Men" belongs in the sub-genre called No Big Stars Special Effects Spectacular that has become so popular in the '90s, along with "Armaggedon," "Jurassic Park," "The Phantom Menace," and "Titanic." Now, if only we can start a genre called Really Good Screenplay Special Effects Spectacular.
Girls Town (1996)
Flat but well acted and thought-provoking
At the center of this largely improvised, sometimes moving, mostly flat cinema verite-style drama about three young women who are dealing with the suicide of one of their friends, there is a mesmerizing performance by 29-year-old Lili Taylor as the Latino, single mother, high school student Patti. I've seen only a few movies with Taylor, "Short Cuts," "Say Anything..." and "Ransom," and in each she was upstaged by actors with more screen time and juicier roles, but I know she's received rave notices for her turns in "Household Saints" and as the "I" in "I Shot Andy Warhol." Here she gives an astonishingly vibrant performance that will have you guessing her age, her ethnicity, and whether or not she's really Lili Taylor. She looks the part with just some rudimentary makeup, yes, and that's nothing to sneeze at, but she also oozes authenticity -- she plays her part better than those other actresses who are just playing themselves.
The rest of the movie has a few moments of truth and also a few choice repeats from High School's Greatest Hits (no small feat either; is the independent market where we must go to find realistic portrayals of public education?), but mostly it features some uninspired improv jobs and a rather sloppy directing job by Jim McKay -- he seems unwilling to exercise any discipline over any of the actors, probably too enamored with the improv style, and as a result the difficulty in framing their more kinetic scenes becomes too much.
Add to this the fact that McKay fails to visibly conclude a story where no real story exists. Malick could end his storyless films properly; Kubrick, too. This is Sundance territory, though, the tightrope upon which films must be made that are daring enough to seem "new," but with enough of a conventional structure to sell tickets. Judging by the rejection of most Sundance releases (with a few notable exceptions) by critics, distributors, and audiences, the festival seems to be hurting itself by playing both sides. So, in a microscopic sense, does "Girls Town."
A movie to make your jaw drop open
Now I have witnessed the third truly great film to have come out of America in 1994. One that can hold its own, and more, against such films released that year as "Pulp Fiction," "Natural Born Killers," and "Vanya on 42nd Street." It's called "Fresh," and I'll go out on a limb to say it's as powerful an urban drama as any other I've seen in my life.
There are no fancy cinematic magic tricks going on in this film, aside from an instance of superimposed images that is so simple it almost seems like a throwback to old silent dramas. There are no choreographed gun fights, no switching film stocks to produce psychedelic effects, nothing like that. Not to say that these things cannot be used appropriately and judiciously to enhance the effect of a particular film, but "Fresh" is stripped bare, and must depend on its performances, direction, and writing alone.
For starters, a young Sean Nelson delivers a performance that puts the lion's share of veteran actors to shame. He's completely lacking in self-consciousness, almost like he's unaware that the camera is on him for nine out of ten of the shots in "Fresh." His character, for which the film takes its title, may be the smartest youth in motion picture history for whom genius is not a gimmick or a joke (i.e. "Good Will Hunting," "Real Genius," stuff like that). Watching him, you see a wise old actor in a teen's body; he does not "act" any emotions or thoughts, but merely feels them and thinks them. He seems to embody bits of screen legend: a little Bogart stalwartness there, some of Jimmy Stewart's quiet charm here, and most of all Morgan Freeman's ability to communicate much while doing or saying very little.
That'd be just enough for most movies, but Nelson is backed by a choice supporting cast: the two most recognizable names are obviously Samuel L. Jackson (Fresh's chessmaster/alcoholic father) and Giancarlo Esposito (the slimy, high-living drug dealer Esteban), and both are perfect in award-caliber performances. Two lesser known actors, N'Bushe Wright (Fresh's junkie sister Nichole) and Jean LaMare (as Jake, the hot tempered low-man-on-the-totem-pole employee of Corky) are also terrific in key roles.
The screenplay, by director Boaz Yakin, is doggedly unpredictable, but in retrospect it all makes perfect sense -- nothing in the movie pushes the bounds of credibility. I've seen truckloads of thrillers, most of them are wearily proficient at making you guess what's next. None but a few, however, kept me guessing WHEN to guess, or surprised me with such affecting emotional developments. None but a few moved along with such self-assured grace and style. "Fresh" knows its territory, the time and place it's set in, and it provides characters who talk like they do in real life -- not ones that sound like they're in a movie where they talk like they do in real life.
The use of violence is admirably restrained. Most of it takes place off camera, silhouetted, or cut away from quickly. The two scenes of bloodletting, when they are shown to us, are literally heartbreaking. Not only does "Fresh" keep us off guard on a psychological level, but on an emotional one as well, something few films ever think of doing.
If I were to offer one criticism, it would be that the chess metaphor was pressed just a bit too hard by Yakin (though the final scene is devastating): we already know that this kid is thinking like a master strategist, we don't need quite so many shots of him playing the game in his room. That's a small quibble, though, because the chess metaphor is entirely appropriate, and Jackson's early speech about the game is an ingenious device.
Big Daddy (1999)
Sandler comedy good / Sandler comedy disguised as cheap melodrama bad
How about this: a guy goes off to China to represent his law firm, comes back to find that his socially inept ex-roommate has been taking care of his illegitimate son, teaching him that all things unacceptable are acceptable, and spends the movie trying to unlearn the kid of all his bad habits. I mean, all you'd have to do is take the only realistic and likable character in "Big Daddy," which would be Kevin (played by Jon Stewart), and make the movie about him, rather than that fool Sonny (the Adam Sandler character). Wouldn't that have been something?
could have been great
Seeing the early previews of "Mulan," I got chills, because I thought we were going to receive Disney's first serious production: something akin to "Braveheart" and "The Last Emperor," with an epic sweep, and without intrusive musical numbers and unnecessary comic relief.
Unfortunately, aside from one breathtaking shot of the Huns thundering down a snow-covered mountainside, the "epic" part of "Mulan" isn't as good as those jokes and musical numbers. When the action-packed climax arrives, it also is played for laughs (look at those guys in drag, ha ha!), and there's a ridiculous scene where a horse plows through an avalanche as if it were just a bit of dust. Sorry, Trigger, but it's off to the glue factory for you.
The music is great, however, probably the best of any Disney film since "Beauty and the Beast." The comedy is much better than the usual fare; Eddie Murphy is just right as the mini-dragon Mushu, and Mulan's grandmother has the best line, near the end.
All said and done, we lost a really awesome epic adventure, and gained a pretty good musical comedy. Excuse me, I have to go watch some Anime now.
tale told by an idiot, full of sound & fury, signifying...you guessed it!
Suffice it to say that whatever impact the play would have on stage has successfully been transferred to the screen by all involved.
Just, try not to listen too closely to everything that the characters played by Sean Penn and Chazz Palminteri have to say. Those guys speak in PARAGRAPHS, nonsensically, over-analytically, super-something-somethingly. You'll get cross-eyed, same as Austin Powers did in his sequel, trying to figure out the paradoxes and redundancies of time travel. It's just not worth the heat and effort.
Okay, good points: Kevin Spacey is marvelous as always, despite some elitist, highbrow critics calling him a parody of himself. I'd see him if he got cast as the next Anakin, for crying out loud. Heck, all the performances are great (Anna Paquin's is especially a hoot), and everyone plays drug-crazed Hollywood denizens with indisputable accuracy. If anyone has proof that drug-crazed Hollywood denizens do not act like this, I'm all ears. Cinematography good -- love the hand-held stuff, thankfully it's not overused -- sets are gorgeous, etc., etc.
Plot: at the center are a pair of Hollywood casting directors (why casting directors? any reference to Hollywood or show business at all is superfluous; they might as well be garbage collectors) spin in their sometimes-crossing orbits, mix with drugs, easy women, friends-for-hire, and expensive lifestyles. Booze, coke, pot, some Valium. There's a big lug of a parasitic actor-friend (Chazz Palminteri, who sees this stuff through his own playwright's eyes, which is sometimes good and sometimes not), a girl who is a cross between a gift and a piece of furniture (Anna Paquin, in a bit of my-choice-in-post-Oscar-scripts-is-a-heck-of-a-lot-better-than-Tatum-O'Neal's (which is correct) casting), a hooker who does her biz in front of her toddler (Meg Ryan -- no viable explanation), a miscellaneous schmuck (Garry Shandling), and some other folks. Oh, yeah, there's Sean Penn's character's wife, played by real life wife Robin Wright Penn.
What to say? Well, no one is speaking in any voices that in any way resemble real human beings. They all talk like the playwright, David Rabe (assuming he talks this way -- what a bore he'd be). This gets awfully tiresome, awfully quick. Can't we have some play-turned-movie where only some of the characters speak in high minded, uber-articulate, drenched-in-pseudointellectual drivel, and the rest (i.e. the ones that matter) stand back and talk like normal folks? Is that too much to ask? Excuse me, I'm going to go see "Clerks" again. At least Kevin Smith's high minded, uber-articulate, drenched-in-pseudointellectual drivel is funny and thought-provoking.
Oh, almost forgot -- any philosophical relevance or dramatic power intended by Rabe is muted by all this nonsense. Otherwise, "Hurlyburly" is capably mounted by director Anthony Drazan, faultlessly performed, and about a half hour too long.
The Maxx (1995)
an animated masterpiece
This is some of the best animation I have yet seen come out of this country. "The Maxx" is, after its two hours have passed: scary, very funny, thoughtful, intelligent, profound, disturbing, highly imaginative, and ultimately quite moving.
Part of the charm of "The Maxx" is that it's clear that the directors of the series are familiar with how people read the comics; how all the elements and dialogue reach the eye. In this way "The Maxx" is far more imaginative than live-action stuff, because it's loose of the bounds of physics laws and a clear-eyed camera. It makes other films based on comic books, "Batman," "Blade," etc., seem clunky and artificial by comparison.
The plot, though drawn from a mish-mash of dream interpretation stuff, pop psychology stuff, Freudian stuff, and miscellaneous mythological references, matters little in the end -- when all is explained, it's a little disappointing because the confusion that "The Maxx" envelops around the viewer was part of what was so good about it. It's the confusion, the intricate layers of reality and unreality, that helps make this show so special.
When you get down to it, it works anyway, thanks to a number of really magnificent things. First, the characters of The Maxx, Julie, and Sarah are multi-faceted and very endearing. Despite the exhilarating cascade of visuals, this is ultimately a character-driven fantasy/drama. That's not all that "The Maxx" ought to be treasured for, though. Sam Keith has created a world (heck, a number of worlds) that are so fiercely original, so imaginative, that nothing short of a complete lack of sympathetic characters would be able to ruin his visionary achievement. To his credit, Keith gives us everything that we've been missing in Hollywood's interpretation of the comics: not just strong visuals, but great writing, a mass of original ideas, and memorable characters.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
OK sci-fi slasher pic
It's a tad disappointing that Harlin shows neither the wit nor the visual flare that he had with "The Long Kiss Good Night" or "Die Hard 2," but for its kind, "Deep Blue Sea" gets the job done.
The premise matters little, the only thing you're required to know is that this is an Attrition Movie; you start out with about a half dozen quickly sketched characters, and one by one, they die. (Kind of like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Scream"). The only thing that keeps the story anchored is that you have to guess who's going to get it next, and in what gruesome, crowd-pleasing fashion.
To his credit, Harlin knows we've seen movies from this genre before, and that as soon as we're introduced to the ethnically diversified cast (let's see: rich suit, minority cook, muscle-bound hero, brainy sidekick, evil woman-in-charge, miscellaneous other scientist who smokes, asexual supporting female, miscellaneous charming Hispanic cast member in a bit part...did I miss anyone?), we'll already be guessing not only who'll die first, but in which order they'll go. The higher prizes go to who can guess the cast member(s) who'll make it to the finale, if any. Harlin mixes up the order a bit, and he also screws around with the timing. We really don't know when the next one will strike, except by last-second visual cues. I guess in Hollywood this is called creativity.
Killing Zoe (1993)
Fans of "Pulp Fiction" beware
Another film to punish us for the crime of enjoying "Pulp Fiction."
If you like watching people get killed by machine gun fire for an hour and a half, this'll probably fit the bill. Fans of the debut episode of "Aeon Flux," wherein the title character slays literally thousands of seemingly faceless soldiers single-handedly, will really go for it.
Otherwise, it's not exactly a clever movie. In fact, all it is is an excuse for a bunch of young people to act rude and shoot people. Sometimes an entire scene goes by, and the only thing that happens is, you guessed it! someone gets shot. Or, to spice things up, twenty people get shot. First, they're just sitting there, the next minute, they're sitting there dead. Yahoo!
Rough plot: A young American goes to Paris (An American in Paris, get it?), hires a prostitute (the ethereal Julie Delpy), gets in touch with some old French buddies, one of which has AIDS, they plan and attempt a bank heist. Of course, movie convention states that no bank robberies on film go off w/o a hitch, and this hitch takes up about three-quarters of the running time (it's like "Dog Day Afternoon" without the Sidney Lumet's wit, patience, or humanity). While at the bank, things go wrong (surprise!), and the Parisian with AIDS, goes wacko with his Uzi several HUNDRED times. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that you're at such an emotional distance from these characters that it's not likely you'll care who lives and who dies by the end of the film.
Some have called it stylish. Perhaps it is, but it's someone else's style, it's a movie that's already been done, and "Killing Zoe" is trapped by convention. Nowhere in the course of the movie does the director (Roger Avary, co-winner of the "Pulp Fiction" screenplay Oscar) do anything really original, stylish, funky, or outrageous. Unless you consider the fact that no movie that has taken place inside a bank has had such a high body count, there isn't anything else to set this one apart from the multitude.
It's possible that not even Disney, with seventy-plus years experience in the animation industry, and all their money, can ever create an animated figure that is as dynamic as Minnie Driver is an actress. Jane seems to be moving too slow and her mouth is out of synch with Driver's. I can almost see the Disney animators, struggling feverishly to catch up with all of Driver's little nuances, all the little spins she puts on ordinary words, that irresistible little giggle, the "useless" words (conjunctions, pronouns, adverbs, etc.) that she slurs together as if they were one sound. She's more animated than animation.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Imperfect but potent debut for QT
I love it when people put this film down. There's something about the passion people have for Tarantino's work that just drives them nutty, and in (rather immaturely) belittling this film (or "Pulp Fiction," or "Jackie Brown,") they also have to take a swipe at the film's fans, too. Why? Why is it necessary to attach their malicious attitude to the audiences who admire the work? Do they think that no film this popular could ever have an honest, true fan base? What gives?
Oh, well. Regardless, "Reservoir Dogs" is a very good film, and an excellent debut for any director, Tarantino or otherwise. It's bold, stylish, confident, lovingly cinematic, simultaneously paying homage to great films past and coming up with some new techniques, all with a scarce amount of money. On a technical level, for its budget, it's pretty close to perfect. The acting could have been a bit better -- Eddie Bunker (who doesn't look a day older than "Straight Time") is downright awful, and Steve Buscemi has a few really bad lines to chew through -- but otherwise "...Dogs" is highly recommended.
Runaway Train (1985)
Everything about this film has a surreal, visceral, in-your-face quality; the anguished, violent intensity of the prison scenes, the frozen wastelands of the lands outside the prison (gee, a metaphor?), the train -- not just a lifeless machine but a huge, juggernaut-like beast -- that the title refers to, the fierce, animalistic performance by Jon Voight, who plays the character of Manny with such raw emotion and conviction that at no moment do we doubt that he is anything other than what he appears to be on screen.
It's based on a screenplay by the legendary Akira Kurosawa -- knowing this makes a lot of the elements a bit more familiar; the snow, the hopelessness, the apocalyptic atmosphere -- and it's directed by Russian Andrei Konchalovsky, who after this film directed two Hollywood embarrassments called "Homer & Eddie" and "Tango & Cash" (apparently trying to corner the market on ampersands), and most recently helmed the acclaimed Armand Assante mini-series "The Odyssey" for television. "Runaway Train" is not a perfect film, some of the minor supporting performances are really awful and some viewers may find Eric Roberts to be irritating, but the sheer kineticism, among the other stronger elements, makes it worthwhile. Often called an intellectual action picture, it's more of an existential one, i.e. man versus a indifferent/hostile universe, etc. Everything in the film has a greater, more universal meaning, and it's not rocket science to figure out what stands for what. The simplicity of its metaphors doesn't dull the impact of "Runaway Train" as a sensory experience, though, because it's still pretty potent stuff. Provided you're not completely close-minded, this is one you'll remember for a long, long time.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Magnificent is right
I think I'd give just about anything to see a restored version of this film, like "Touch of Evil."
Its reputation is quite justified, however, and the top critics of today have generally agreed that it's one of Welles' best efforts as director. Some have even said that, scene for scene, it's a better film than "Citizen Kane."
The opening montage, set to Welles' narration, is as good as anything of its kind that's been done before or after -- brilliantly, and I hate to use that word because it's so often overused, it achieves two things: 1) it sets up the dramatic side of the story, with Eugene's fawning for and losing the affections of Isabel, and 2) putting us in a specific, historical time and place. The story of George Minafer's downfall parallels the changing times of America during that time, as well as American aristocracy.
Then there's Agnes Moorehead, who does the most amazing work as Fanny Minafer, George's aunt. She's a pressure cooker to begin with, but when the Ambersons hit rock-bottom she lets go, in a torrential, hysterical performance that's still getting praise today.
"The Magnificent Ambersons" also carries an equally dramatic story of Hollywood's assault on artistic expression; almost everyone knows that RKO seized the film and cut it to pieces while Welles was out doing his documentary "It's All True." Today there's other ways for great directors (Kubrick, Altman) to dodge the system, but film stock and equipment in those days could only be procured from big studios, and for the remainder of Welles' career his genius would only be seen fleetingly (his adaptations of Shakespeare, Kafka's "The Trial"). It's a story as tragic as George Minafer's.
The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Unrelentingly downbeat but unconvincing junkie melodrama
"The Basketball Diaries" throws just about every imaginable junkie-movie cliche at you, one by one, like a dress rehearsal for "Trainspotting." Thing is, that film was the best film released during 1996, while this one is just plain mean.
Leonardo DiCaprio (in an excellent performance that nearly makes the film work) stars as Jim Carroll -- the screenplay is based on his 1970s cult novel, which we are to interpret as being his autobiography -- who is a top basketball star at his NYC Catholic school in the film's beginning (a Catholic school complete with a perversely masochistic priest and a closet homosexual basketball coach, of course), and spends the film descending into heroin oblivion. Along the way he's accompanied by his hophead friends, his tough-but-caring mom (Lorraine Bracco, who's terrific), and an angelic black guy who stuffs Jimmy's I've-hit-rock-bottom-but-I-don't-know-it face in the mirror with the always faithful "Look at yourself!" There's also the usual gallery of unusual, freaky characters, and a series of badly shot and edited "fantasy" sequences which are supposed to illustrate what's really going on in ol' Jimmy's head, in case we didn't quite get it in the first place.
What's the problem here? Is it the performances? Of course not -- everyone in the cast gives convincing, sometimes terrifying performances in their underwritten roles. The problem is with the director, Scott Kalvert, and the fact that he's not a very good director, and that the writer, Bryan Goluboff, resorts to all the expected and worn-out devices from addict stories of decades past, almost as if it were a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first notable addiction/ withdrawal film, "The Lost Weekend." The trouble is, even when Goluboff's screenplay tries to reach for new and inventive cinema, Kalvert's lazy direction ruins everything.
Recently the film met with some notoriety when New Line Cinema wanted to recall the film, due to one fantasy sequence wherein Jim, dressed in a chic black trenchcoat and steel-toed military boots, brings a shotgun to school, blah blah blah. The reasoning, I guess, was that it preemptively echoed the Columbine massacre, and the sight of teen-favorite actor DiCaprio dressing in Trenchcoat Mafia dress and doing Trenchcoat Mafia stuff would inspire other teeny-boppers to do the same. Uh, mmkay. Anyway, free speech defenders cried out in anger, shortly before New Line realized they didn't own the rights to the film, labeling the move an assault on free speech and artistic expression. Thing is, though, there isn't much in "Diaries" that hasn't been expressed before. Maybe that seems insensitive and maybe I'm not displaying the proper social attitude of Go Free Speech!, but honestly, if we lost "The Basketball Diaries," there'd still be at least a half-dozen other films available that told the same story, but better.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
High-velocity, sexually charged thriller
How did Robert Aldrich get this past the Production Code? A beautiful, naked woman running down the highway; Mike Hammer's lusty secretary, in that tight blouse; a plot that hints that maybe -- just maybe -- our government isn't telling us everything; gruesome tortures and murders, the list goes on.
"Kiss Me Deadly" is one terrific thriller and the best example of pure, undiluted film-noir from the 1950s, when that genre was at its peak.
One reason for this is that it stands up so well to today's standards -- seen now, "Kiss Me Deadly" seems fresh, especially when compared to a lot of today's tragically lame neo-noir films. Everything's slightly overblown, Expressionist style, too, which makes the picture more fun at times, more frightening at others.
As movie lore would have it, Aldrich edited two endings with the same footage, both of which appear on the newer video releases of the film. Which one you like better is more or less irrelevant, since you can't just remove one ending from your imagination and substitute another; the gimmick will probably appeal more to completists who are into lost footage and directors' cuts.
Kiss or Kill (1997)
A fresh lovers-on-the-lam movie? Is it possible?
Surprisingly, the genre hasn't been worn down to the nub, despite dozens upon dozens of examples pointing to the contrary.
Annoying, overused, Scorsesean jump cuts aside, "Kiss or Kill" has enough good things going for it to make it the best Aussie import I've come across in a great long while.
The director is Bill Bennett, whose other noteworthy effort was a Sandra Bullock picture that wasn't really worth bragging about (has anyone made a Sandra Bullock picture worth bragging about?) He's not too keen as a director, really, cross-cutting scenes that haven't got anything to do with each other, overdoing the jump cuts to force a free-and-easy atmosphere onto the proceedings, but as a scenarist he's excellent. The plot begins like any other ordinary "Bonnie and Clyde" xerox, but it flows free from there, as if Bennett just let the characters take over, rather than the plot conventions.
The acting, uniformly, is pretty close to fantastic. There's Frances O'Conner as the fast-moving but slow-thinking Nikki, who as a child (opening sequence) sees something so horrible at her home that it's no wonder she chose a life of crime. Matt Day is equally skilled as her lover/partner, though we aren't given as much insight into his character as we are Nikki's. Chris Haywood and Andrew S. Albert are complete naturals as the cops on their trail. For those two detectives, they get a brilliant variation on the "Pulp Fiction" bacon discussion that is the film's highlight.
If Bill Bennett fails directing the film into Tarantino-esque jazz rhythms, he succeeds ultimately by giving us an Australian outback that's so barren and unmistakably evil that one might think the "Mad Max" road barbarians were already bopping around, not patient enough to wait for the apocalypse. Characters talk of "unfathomable tunnels under the desert" or live in an abandoned nuclear testing facility, and all through the film there's subtle hints that the outback is one spooky, spooky place. Also, Bennett's decision to use no music (and I mean NO music) is a masterstroke, and he employs a champion cinematographer named Malcolm McCulloch to give the film an eerie, chilly atmosphere. Balance that atmosphere with the occasional joke and cheery scene, and "Kiss or Kill" keeps an audience on its toes.
Films like this usually disappoint as they drift into convention at the climax and towards the summary. Creativity in the third act of most movies these days seems quite lacking, in fact, which made the last third of "Kiss or Kill" such a pleasure to watch. I'll just say that thankfully, the surprises and expected twists were, like the rest of the movie, driven by character and personality, instead of the requirements of the genre.
Random Harvest (1942)
An MGM soaper of the highest order
The plot (I wouldn't dare reveal the surprises) has been lifted from this picture and used in more episodes of network day-time dramas than can be counted. Nevertheless, if it has ever been approached as freshly, or acted out as well as in "Random Harvest," I don't know about it.
Colman is in top form, in a character that seems tailor-made for him. Greer Garson seems a bit miscast at first (especially to those who've seen her noble, earnest performance of the title role in "Mrs. Miniver"), but she quickly grows on you, the same way she did in "Pride and Prejudice" (probably her best movie, that).
One of the best films of 1942, "Random Harvest" is a big, terrifically entertaining, high-gloss tearjerker. If you're looking for a good, old-fashioned romance-drama in the MGM vein, you can't go wrong with this one.