Category: B-


Room

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When I was reading Robert McKee’s Story months ago to help with my screenwriting (that book can really only teach you structure; it can’t teach you to be a writer), he went off on a long tangent about how modern independent cinema has forsaken plot for mood and atmosphere and stylistic window-dressing. I bet Robert McKee would have really hated 2005’s experimental indie drama Room. Here is a film that is all atmosphere, and when it attempts to have an actual plot or conversations between its characters on screen, it falls completely apart. But when it focuses on atmosphere, there’s something hypnotic about this film.

As an experiment in free-associative storytelling (and masterful post-production on a limited budget), Room‘s plot is not nearly as important as the way the film makes you feel though there is the skeleton of a story here. Julia Barker (Cyndi Williams) is a desperate and exhausted married mother of two. Her life consists of dealing with her delinquent eldest daughter and being yelled at by her boss at the bingo hall where she works in addition to being some type of delivery woman. Julia’s life is a monotonous grind of work and an unfulfilling home life. And there’s no way it will ever change.

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But, Julia’s life does begin to change when she starts to experience blackouts accompanied by visions of a massive empty room. The visions are muddled and unclear at first (and never really clear up that much), but the room appears as a giant loft, the kind you’d find in Brooklyn these days going for exorbitant rates. And so, Julia steals the deposit from her bingo hall’s safe and runs off to New York City desperately trying to find not only this giant room that she keeps seeing in her head but to find change and meaning in her life for the first time in years.

I almost feel like that last sentence of that paragraph is a spoiler for this film because ultimately, the emptiness of our lives is the point of the film and what I believe the empty room that Julia sees symbolizes. I don’t think that the film is remotely subtle in trying to get that point across. And, honestly, that’s okay to an extent. As a meditation on the desperation of impoverished working women in America and the idea that a family isn’t the only key to female satisfaction, Room is surprisingly powerful, and the interludes where there’s no dialogue and we just see Julia’s frantic search for anything in her life are fresh and evocative filmmaking.

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And the film’s sound design and editing match the disorienting feel of Julia’s existential crisis. With industrial droning and a schizophrenic cutting rhythm, Room (when it does what it does best) places the viewer right in the mindset of a woman on the brink. It’s a shame then that the sections of the film that focus on Julia’s interactions with others or dialogue seem so stilted and unnatural. Perhaps the director was attempting to make a statement on the mundaneness of Julia’s existence. But it didn’t make it any less dull and difficult to sit through.

Room isn’t like a lot of films you’ve ever seen. The only comparison to spring immediately to mind is Inland Empire although Room is decidedly less ambitious or mind-screwy. For casual film-viewers, Room will not be a rewarding experience and you will likely leave it angry that you sat through it all considering the film’s denouement (which to be fair, I enjoyed), but at 73 minutes, Room is worth a watch from fans of experimental cinema looking for something that truly follows its own rules and doesn’t bow down to the logic or structure of conventional cinema.

Score: B-

 

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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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Like many young intellectuals yearning for something deeper in their lives, I have turned to Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel, On the Road, for inspiration. One of the defining pieces of “beat” literature, On the Road is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century and its portrait of young Americans without purpose or direction has carried a romantic power to millions of disaffected youth since it was first released in 1957. However, unlike many of my contemporaries who have read Kerouac’s classic novel and viewed it as a romanticized ode to life on the road and freeing one’s self from the shackles of society, I interpreted On the Road to be a deeply sad and lonely evocation of the desperation that has consumed young people when we’ve found ourselves freed from whatever ties we imagine society has bound upon us but have yet to find any actual meaning within our own lives outside of evading those strictures.

I took that view of the novel because deep down, there are no happy characters in the book. The closest you get is Dean Moriarty (later on, famous real life Merry Prankster, Neal Cassady, in real life: see The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But even Dean’s manic joie de vivre masks a complete lack of any meaning in his life and a total inability to care about anyone but himself in any sort of real or meaningful way. Dean is a product of pure, selfish, destructive id. And everyone else, from Sal to Carlo to Marylou to Camille, are wandering around in an existentialist fugue hoping that the next great adventure will provide them with a sense of purpose. And, that sense of purpose never comes until, at last, Sal is able to wash away the idealistic facade he’s built around himself and his relationship with Dean Moriarty. And this understanding that On the Road is a tremendously sad and introspective work is probably the only thing that the 2012 film adaptation gets right.

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I didn’t read On the Road until fairly recently so I had known about the plans for the movie for a while, but had I read the book without knowing there was a movie coming out, I would have made the argument that On the Road was unfilmable, and Walter Salles’ film adaptation does little to make me think I’m wrong in that supposition. What makes On the Road succeed certainly isn’t it’s narrative structure which, sprawling as it is, is mostly Sal Paradise wandering around the country with a different group of outcasts and outsiders and barely making any sort of revelations or character change until perhaps the end of the film. On the Road is important for its sharp, unique  prose and the poetry of his descriptions of the fringes of American 1950s American society. The only way that I could see an On the Road adaptation working as a movie is as some type of late-period Terrence Malick style visual tone poem which tries to keep as much of Kerouac’s prose and poetry intact. The film version that exists attempts a more traditional narrative structure and it robs the piece of much of Kerouac’s magic insight.

For those who haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with the tangled web of “beat” literature, On the Road is a very autobiographical tale of the both literal and spiritual journey that Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), aka author Jack Kerouac, takes around the nation when he finds himself drawn into the social circle of a group of mad and passionate intellectuals and freaks including homosexual poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), aka Allen Ginsberg, and manic conman Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), aka Neal Cassady. Deciding that the only chance he’ll have to write anything of meaning will be if he leaves his material world of comfort in New York City behind, Sal sets out on the road and crosses back and forth across the country multiple times in search of inspiration and the elusive American dream. Whether or not he ever finds it is up to your interpretation of the novel.

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On the Road clearly couldn’t adapt the entirety of Kerouac’s sprawling, epic portrait of life on the American road into a two or so hour movie and so the vast majority of the book’s more minor subplots get left on the cutting room floor (though when they arrive, they are so thinly developed that you’d probably be left wondering what the fuck is going on if you haven’t read the book), and screenwriter Jose Rivera picks a few key threads to focus on. A significant amount of the novel is dedicated to Dean Moriarty’s almost criminal mistreatment of his girlfriends/wife, the 16 year old Marylou (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart) and the older but even more suffering Camille (Kirsten Dunst) as well as the homoerotic subtext of Dean’s friendship with Sal and his explicit (in terms of not being subtext/not graphic portrayal) homosexual relationship with Carlo Marx.

Those are important threads of the novel, and I particularly appreciated that the movie made clear things that Jack Kerouac only really hinted at in the novel in regards to Dean and Carlo’s sexual relationship (something that’s become a matter of historical record since the novel came out). And, the film addresses the insanely misogynistic behavior that Dean commits pathologically that Sal seems to in love with him to ever call him out on in the book. But, by focusing so heavily on the darker aspects of the novel, the movie fails to capture those moments (which are as important to the book as its sense of alienation and desperation) in the novel where Sal is bowled over by the simple beauty of life. I understand that sort of tonal complexity is difficult to accomplish in a film but if you’re going to tackle such an important and beloved novel, it’s subtleties have to be respected.

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What I’m about to say will probably come off as somewhat ironic since I’ve been harping on how much I dislike Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady as an actual person, but he’s also without question the most interesting and dynamic figure in the work (though the increased attention given to Carlo Marx in the film helps make that more of a competition). Dean can’t stop moving. If he stands still for even a second, he gets bored. And his ever-present restlessness brings ruin down on everyone around him so thank the gods that the best performance of the film comes from Garrett Hedlund who plays perpetual motion machine Neal Cassady so well. He may not have the “hopped up on speed” mania that I got from reading the book, but it’s also easy to see why Sal began to swoon so hard for this man of undeniable magnetism (how homoerotic did that sentence come off). There’s a scene at the end of the film where Dean confronts Sal one last time that is heartbreaking as played by the talented Mr. Hedlund. I want to see more from this young star.

Others in the film seemed less well cast. Sam Riley seems like the premiere contender for most absurd casting decision ever. He looks nothing like Jack Kerouac so his mediocre performance can’t even be looked over for him at least having some type of physical resemblance to the man. If Sal is a passive observer in the books, the movie manages to make Sal Paradise seem even less interesting by comparison. Kirsten Dunst has never been well cast for a role in her life and it still boggles my mind that she has an acting career, and her Camille is no exception. Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss shows up for all of five minutes to play a minor role and I kept wishing that she would have played Camille instead. Surprisingly, Kristen Stewart was an interesting take on Marylou and it reminds me that in Adventureland and Into the Wild, she’s a good actress. She’s just forced the awful Bella Swan on the public as her most famous role.

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If there’s one last positive thing to say about the film, it’s that one can’t fault the gorgeous cinematography from Eric Gautier who provided similarly impressive work on an earlier, better Walter Salles film, The Motorcycle Diaries. This review comes off as really harsh to this vision of one of the most well-loved novels of the 20th century, so I don’t want to give the idea that On the Road was a bad film. It just made a number of bizarre design decisions that distract from what makes On the Road so special and unique. I don’t envy anyone the task of trying to make a film on a novel that’s so personal to so many people. Lord knows that as a screenwriter myself, I would never want that burden. But, they volunteered to do it, and throughout the whole film, I had the thought at the back of my head that I wish it had gone differently.

Final Score: B-

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After much delay, I finally sat down to watch the second film in the Swedish cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I have not read the books though I have seen both the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the American adaptation directed by David Fincher. They both have their strengths though I thought David Fincher’s interpretation was clearly the best and Rooney Mara’s frighteningly intense turn as hacker prodigy/deeply troubled young adult Lisbeth Salander still ranks among the best female performances of this current decade. But, for reasons that I am unable to fully articulate I put off watching the first of the two sequels (apparently there were plans for six books but the author died before he could write the last three), and now, honestly, I can say I wish I had waited until the movie had shown up naturally on this list so I didn’t go out of my way to watch it.

That’s not to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire was a bad film. Far from it in fact. The aspects of the franchise that I find compelling remained intact. Lisbeth Salander is still an endlessly fascinating creation of feminist fury. Mikael Blomqvist is also the type of great journalistic character that hearkens back to All the President’s Men. And, as far as tales of shocking luridness go, the Millennium trilogy is hard to top. Add on the fact that this particular entry is much better directed than the original and The Girl Who Played with Fire should be even better than the first film. It isn’t. If both versions of the first book suffered from a rather cut-and-dry procedural crime investigation at their core, The Girl Who Played with Fire makes the look into the Vanger family seem like Sherlock Holmes. Full of gaping plot holes and inconsistent pacing, I am now pray that maybe Fincher and co. can wrest a great film out of this material.

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After absconding with the bank account of the man that framed left-wing journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) at the beginning of the first film, troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to her native Sweden when she discovers that the state psychiatrist that had raped her in the first film plans on removing the damning tattoo Lisbeth forced upon him as revenge for his act of sadism and brutality. At the same time, Mikael begins to assist a young journalist who has a story that implicates many high-ranking Swedish government officials in a sex-trafficking ring. And when that journalist and his girlfriend (who is doing doctoral work on sex trafficking) are murdered with a gun owned by the psychiatrist Lisbeth came back to threaten and then he also winds up dead, it’s not long before the police begin to suspect Lisbeth in the murders and it’s up to her and Mikael to clear her name.

As a procedural crime mystery, I obviously don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot for fear of spoiling anything that happens. But, I hope it’s not a spoiler if I say that the whole arc comes off as criminally disappointing in the end and I don’t mean that simply because the movie just sort of ends as it’s finally beginning to pick up the pace. The writing in this particular entry (and I almost suspect it’s partly the subtitles/translation because there’s no way the dialogue was this awkward in the original Swedish) comes off as lazy and half-there, and by the end of the film, particular pieces of evidence are collected and then there’s one moment that I’m fairly sure was meant to be a flashback but it appears to be a flashback to a moment that never actually happened in the film in the first place, but I may be wrong there. The movie wore me out and I decided to take a quick nap halfway through and start back where I left off so I could have just forgotten that moment.

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Thankfully, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are as great as ever. Though, one of the defining and most enjoyable aspects of the original film (in both its iterations) was the chemistry between Lisbeth and Mikael, and the two (SPOILER ALERT) don’t share the screen together until literally the final minutes of the film. Also, Noomi doesn’t have to carry out any scenes as tough as the multiple times she was raped in the first film though a particularly brutal moment towards the end of the film comes close. And Michael Nyqvist similarly doesn’t have nearly as much to work with. It’s good then that these two are pros and just their presence alone is enough to salvage less than spectacular writing. I’m hoping that by the time I get around to watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, these two will have more time on screen together.

I’ll draw this review to a close. This review comes off as particularly negative but I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy The Girl Who Played with Fire. I did. I find the universe of the Millennium trilogy fascinating and unsettling and overflowing with frightening characters. Just, after the David Fincher version of the first book, I know that there is greatness possible in a cinematic version of this world, and once again, the native Swedish adaptations of the Swedish novel fails to deliver as well as one could hope. Mostly, I finished The Girl Who Played with Fire with a sense of “what could have been” and you never want to leave a movie that way.

Final Score: B-

Liar Liar

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It’s hard to review films that I enjoyed from my childhood. Unless I’ve grown to find them blatantly offensive and pandering like Forrest Gump, that sense of nostalgia and of a specific time and place in my life overwhelms my critical senses. Would I still enjoy Hook so much (a critical disaster when it was first released) if I hadn’t loved it as much as a kid? I don’t know, and deep down, that bothers me. I don’t want that sort of sentiment warping my writing. When I was in elementary school, Jim Carrey was probably one of my favorite comedic actors on the planet (I know. I was a dumb kid.), and along with The Mask, his 1997 vehicle Liar Liar was a personal favorite. But, Carrey’s career (excepting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has been a joke the last thirteen years, and I was actively dreading putting Liar Liar in for fear that it would ruin a cherished childhood memory.

I worried too much. I’m not sure if any one on the planet could actually characterize Liar Liar as a good film, but Jim Carrey’s specific brand of physical and slapstick humor is on total display for every second of this film’s hour and a half running time, and whenever the movie’s hit-or-miss writing fails to score a joke, Carrey returns to save the day. That’s a problem; it’s a fairly major problem. But when you have a physical performer like Carrey who is at the top of his game, his presence alone is enough to make the film enjoyable, highly enjoyable at times. And though my inner Alexander Payne/Woody Allen fan wants to chide me for laughing as hard as I did at many of the more lowbrow jokes in Liar Liar, I would be the liar if I didn’t say that despite the film’s legion of flaws, Liar Liar can be both hilarious and entertaining. Still not sure if it’s a “good” film though.

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Jim Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, a smooth-talking, womanizing litigator who can’t find time in his packed schedule to spend time with his five year old son Max (Justin Cooper). Even though Fletcher’s ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) is getting closer to bland hospital administrator Jerry (Cary Elwes) who may be moving soon to Boston, Fletcher is unable to make his son a priority in his life, and Max has lived through a spell of broken promises. After Fletcher misses Max’s birthday party in order to sleep with his boss because he hopes it will help him make partner at his law firm, Max wishes that his dad couldn’t tell a lie for a whole day. And Max’s wish comes true. On the worst possible day for Fletcher as Max has a  high-profile case to try that he can only hope to win through lying and Audrey decides to marry Jerry and move to Boston and Fletcher has one last chance to keep his son in his life.

The plot is as simple and juvenile as that. But, for what it’s worth, the movie manages to score some great laughs out of such a simple set-up. From the first moment that Fletcher begins uncontrollably telling the truth (where he tells his boss that he’s had better sex) through the following hour of classic Carey antics, Jim Carrey (and mostly Jim Carrey alone) is able to wring laugh after laugh out of mediocre at best writing. There’s a truly inspired sequence early in the film where Carrey is suddenly aware of his inability to lie and he attempts to write that a blue pencil is red. A physical comedy routine that the Stooges would have been proud of ensues. Similarly, at one point, Carrey tries to get out of having to continue trying a case he knows he can’t win by beating the holy hell out of himself in the court bathroom. It’s manic brilliance.

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Sadly, as I’ve said, the film’s writing is all over the place. Sometimes, it works great. There’s a scene later in the film where Fletcher’s boss realizes he can’t lie so she forces him to tell all of the members of the firm’s partnership board how he really feels about them, but they think it’s a comedic roast (though even some of those jokes are lazy). Others are less than successful. Early on in the film, Fletcher gets in an elevator with a busty woman and the whole scene reeks of misogyny (there’s a difference between pointing misogyny out for laughs and still actually being misogynistic despite that). Similarly, by the film’s end, Liar Liar tries so hard for a treacly sweet and almost disgustingly happy ending that it ruined whatever more subversive humor Carrey had put on display earlier in the film.

If you can’t tell, I have kind of absurdly complicated feelings about Liar Liar. Yes, it is funny. I would be a pretentious liar and the worst kind of hipster if I tried to lie and say I didn’t enjoy sitting down and watching this movie again. And to go back to the point I was making in my opening paragraph, I honestly think the pleasure I derived from this film was more than a lasting memory of my childhood. Physical comedy is great when done well, and Jim Carrey used to be a master of the form. But, Liar Liar is a Jim Carrey vehicle in every sense of the word, and when the film strays even the slightest from his strengths as a comedian, it not only stops being funny; it becomes actively bad. So, perhaps a good film can not exist based solely on the strength of one component, but Jim Carrey’s madcap antics surely made Liar Liar a mostly enjoyable experience.

Final Score: B-

 

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(I should preface this review with the fact that I watched this movie Sunday morning, and I’ve worked two nearly consecutive shifts since then so I apologize if my recollections of this film are less than pristine)

A military “epic” from the late 1930s sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. It’s an opinion I’ve long held, but with the exception of foreign films and film noir, I find most of the dramatic cinematic output of the pre-1960s era to be laughable at best (clearly there are exceptions like Rebel Without a Cause or The Searchers, but generally, I stand by my assertion), and 1938’s Blockade barely qualifies as a good film. The acting is often overwrought (though by turn intriguingly sensitive). The script hinges on one too many improbable coincidences, and it has all the flawed trappings of the melodramas of its time. But, despite all that, I found myself drawn into William Dieterle’s Spanish Civil War drama.

Perhaps it’s the film’s merciful length which miniaturized the epic to a manageable 90 minutes, but Blockade rarely saddled itself with its weak points for long enough for them to be too bothersome, and when it worked, it created interesting clashes with what I associate as the typical convention of late 30s Production Code era Hollywood storytelling. Thanks in no part to the by turns hammy and then deceptively sensitive performance from Henry Fonda, Blockade wormed its way into my heart and though I doubt I’ll give much thought to this tale a month from now, while it lasted I genuinely cared about the fates of its heroes.

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On the eve of the Spanish Civil War (whose politics are not even remotely discussed. it is, in fact, difficult to tell which side of the war that our hero ultimately fights for), simple peasant farmer Marco (The Longest Day‘s Henry Fonda) encounters the beautiful and mysterious Norma (Madeleine Carroll) whose car crashes into Marco’s oxen cart. Marco gives her a lift back to the nearest town not knowing that Norma is a Russian spy working for the force in the war that Marco ultimately opposes. As the war begins, Marco and the other farmers are fleeing their land when Marco finally has enough and rallies the men to form a military defense of their homes.

Afterwards, Marco becomes a high-ranking officer in the resistance (though, yet again, it’s really unclear what he’s resisting and who he’s fighting though maybe less subtlety was needed in 1938 to get across the facts of a then semi-recent war). And, Norma, her father, and another Russian spy work to undermine the resistance by blowing up a ship bringing relief to the blockaded Spanish city of Castelmare. However, after Marco kills her father, Norma begins to realize the error of her ways, and unless she can atone for her past misdeeds, the entire city of Castelmare will starve and the war will be lost.

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This is the earliest Henry Fonda film I’ve ever seen, and I was bowled over by how much he looks like a cross between Willem Dafoe and Jack Lemmon. Watch this movie and til me I’m wrong. I was also impressed by how his performance seemed far more sensitive and less outwardly masculilne than many of his contemporary peers. Here was a man that was clearly a model for later sensitive stars like James Dean and Montgomery Clift. In the bigger dramatic moments, he generally couldn’t find the emotional subtlety that he displayed in the quieter, more emotional scenes, but when he hit the right notes, I was very impressed. I now owe it to myself to watch the rest of Fonda’s early repertoire (as I feel I’m sorely uneducated in the career of Henry Fonda).

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to play Assassin’s Creed 3 for a bit, and maybe get around to watching the Daniel Day-Lewis movie I’ve had at home from Netflix for nearly a month now (I tried to watch it on Netflix Instant a month ago, but everyone’s Irish accents were so thick that I couldn’t understand a word and I realized I needed subtitles). So, I’ll leave you with this note. Blockade is a melodramatic, ultimately forgettable relic of 1930s cinema, and other than hardcore Henry Fonda fans, it is nowhere near required viewing. But, for a simple cat-and-mouse spy story and a tale of man’s convictions in a war, it will pass 93 minutes with enjoyment.

Final Score: B-

 

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The day that I get too old to enjoy children’s movies will be the day that my heart stops being capable of having simple, innocent fun. Anyone who’s read my reviews of Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Howl’s Moving Castle know the fondness I hold in my heart for great children’s film-making, and when Pixar or Studio Ghibli are involved, we’re living through a family film renaissance. But, the mark of a great children’s movie is how much the adults in the audience can appreciate it, and though 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a remarkable technical achievement as the world’s first full-length animated film, sitting through it’s actual story was an absolute, almost unbearable bore.

When I was watching the Blu-Ray re-release of Snow White (which impressively decided to not futz with the original film’s 4:3 aspect ratio by not awkwardly forcing a 16:9 schematic into the film), I was bowled over by the film’s artist attention to detail and the sheer scope and gamble that movie surely represented for the Disney studios. No one else had done anything like it before. Cartoons were meant for shorts, not movies, but Walt Disney wrung 90 minutes out of an animated story. And, the backgrounds and characters (except for the hideously drawn Snow White herself) are exquisite and well-crafted in a way that Disney rarely does anymore. Sadly, that didn’t make the actual plot of the film itself any more enjoyable.

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If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you’re either an amnesia just waking from a decades long coma or you’re an alien intent on infiltrating the human race. But, here goes. Snow White is a beautiful princess whose evil stepmother, the Queen, fears her stepdaughter’s beauty. With a magic mirror constantly telling her that she’s the most fairest woman in the land, the Queen is content to make her daughter’s life hell and to dress her as a hideous maid until one day the mirror changes its tune and tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all.

The Queen, being the psychotic narcissist that she is, doesn’t take the news well. She orders the royal huntsman to escort the young Snow White off to the woods and then to kill her and remove her heart as a trophy. But, when the time comes, the huntsman can not do it and shows mercy on the young Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the woods away from the watchful eyes of her evil Stepmother, and in those woods, she stumbles upon the company of seven strange but lovable dwarfs who vow to keep her safe. But, the Queen’s vengeance knows no limits and she devises a plan with a poisoned apple to end Snow White’s life once and for all.

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Words can not properly describe how irritating Adriana Caselotti’s voice is. That’s the woman who voiced Snow White, and it’s like if they took everything that made Judy Garland’s voice so iconic and wonderful and then made it grating like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. She thankfully doesn’t talk all that much, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for the Evil Queen to feed her the poisoned apple because I didn’t want to hear her treacly sweet voice ever again. Her singing voice is alright, but most of the enjoyable musical numbers from the film were performed by the dwarfs anyway, but more on them in a second.

The movie’s story is so broad, the characterizations so thin, and the innocence of it so frustrating that it’s difficult for anyone bred on the Disney films of the 90s (like me) to be able to sit through the simplicity of this film’s tale. Until the dwarfs arrive, it lacks much of the trademark humor of a Disney film, and it’s painfully obvious that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made for young girls and absolutely no one else was likely intended to enjoy it. Alongside the film’s artistic craftsmanship, the dwarfs are the only consistently enjoyable part of the film, and they add a much needed levity to the whole affair. There’s a reason why “Hi Ho” is still a classic of the children’s genre.

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As dull and uninteresting as I found most of the film, I was able to sit through this thankfully brief film because of how gorgeous the artwork is. For what was the very first full-length animated feature, Disney already knew what they were doing, and their dedication to getting things right in an age before computers is incredible. I can’t even imagine the man hours that went into making this movie. So, although I have no intention of watching this film ever again (unless I have a daughter someday who forces me to), I can appreciate the momentous undertaking that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented for Disney. And it’s that ambition that keeps this score from being even lower than it alraedy is.

Final Score: B-

 

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In 2006, two films about purveyors of illusions hit theaters, and much like the battle between 30 Rock and Studio 60 (which ironically both premiered that year as well I believe), only one would prevail. Of course, the film that made the biggest cultural headway (and helped to catapult Christopher Nolan into the public imagination) was the Christian Bale/Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Prestige. But, over the years, the other magic themed film from that year, The Illusionist, has gained a considerable cult-following and I’ve meant to watch it for years now. And, I must sadly report that I found the film disappointing. Like any magic trick properly explained, The Illusionist is a hollow, fleeting experience with only just enough flashes of magic o keep it interesting.

I say that it’s hollow and fleeting because The Illusionist has joined films like War Horse as proof that you can have a technically competent and well-executed film that I won’t find especially enjoyable when the the important pieces (plotting, characterization) are merely shadows in fact. Because, like the ethereal projections that Eisenheim the Illusionist (American History X‘s Edward Norton) conjures late in the film, there is nothing substantive beneath The Illusionist‘s surface. With flat, one-dimensional characters and torpid pacing that seems to revel in its own predictability, this film tested my patience to sit through its motions and only earned my attention on rare occasions.

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Years after being pushed away from his childhood love, almost supernaturally gifted illusionist Eisenheim moves to Vienna to practice his trade. But during a packed performance attended by none other than the crown prince of Hungary, Eisenheim sees his childhood love, Sophie (Jessica Biel), for the first time in years. A contessa herself, Sophie is now engaged to the Crown Prince, but seeing Eisenheim brings up feelings that both thought were  lost. As Eisenheim becomes even more popular with the Viennese people and embarrasses the Crown Prince with his tricks, Eisenheim is investigated by Inspector Uhl (Private Parts‘s Paul Giamatti) for any possible wrongdoing. But, of course, nobody knows the massive trick Eisenheim has up his sleeve.

I tend to give more in-depth discussions of characters and plots here, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much going on underneath the surface of The Illusionist. Characters are exactly what they seem, and if you are able to pay even the most remote attention, things play out as you think they will. Although I actually enjoyed the ending (mostly for the film paying off how I expected things to turn out), it is also 100% predictable and even then, it glosses over certain things that would have made more sense with better foreshadowing. Though Eisenheim is meant to be mysterious, the film’s dogged insistence on not fleshing out his character any robs the film of nearly any ability to generate audience sympathy.

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Ed Norton is one of my favorite actors of his generation. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch him in Primal Fear or American History X and not simply stand in awe of his mastery of his craft. But, like everything else in The Illusionist, his performance in this film is simply “meh.” He can’t maintain his Prussian accent for more than half a scene, and the writing provides him with very little to work with in strengthening the characterization of this bland magician. Jessica Biel is just an outright mediocre actress at best, and she showed nothing new as the Contessa. But, thankfully, like all films he’s in, Paul Giamatti shines as the tireless investigator because he’s just always a champ.

I’m going to keep this review short. I want to play a bit of The Last of Us tonight and keep catching up on Game of Thrones. Hell, maybe if I’m lucky I can even watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which is the next film on my blog list that I have waiting at home from Netflix. And honestly, there was just nothing special about this film. It wasn’t that the movie was bad. And, I actually really enjoyed the cinematography at times, but there was nothing astounding about The Illusionist. And it had enough glaring flaws in terms of its characterization that I couldn’t ever fully (or even mostly) invest in this tale. For fans of the technical aspects of film-making, The Illusionist has some secrets to reveal, but everybody else could probably stay home.

Final Score: B-

 

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(A quick aside before this review begins. I watched this movie last night before I went to bed. I worked from 8:30-4:30 and took a 2 hour nap when I got home cause I have to work again from 10 PM to 2 AM. And there’s a reasonable chance that I won’t be able to finish this review before I have to go back to work in an hour and a half. We’ll see. Hopefully, that’s not the case.)

I have a soft spot for classic romances. It’s a theme that’s been explored on here from films as diverse as Giant to Penny Serenade to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Despite my jaded, world-weary cynicism, I’m a romantic at heart, and I like watching a well-crafted romance. Merchant Ivory films (the movies of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) have a reputation as being lavish, meticulously constructed period romances, and while 1986’s A Room with a View is a beautifully acted and gorgeously shot film, I can’t ignore the fact that it was unequivocally one of the most boring films I’ve watched in ages.

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In the Edwardian era, young Lucy Honeychurch (Conversations With Other Women‘s Helena Bonham Carter) visits Florence with her aunt, Charlotte Bartlett (Gosford Park‘s Maggie Smith), in tow as her chaperone. A slightly rebellious girl, Lucy wanders Florence on her own and plays Beethoven passionately as the curious Vicar Beebe (Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Simon Callow). Among the fellow Brits in the hotel Lucy and her aunt are staying at are the Emersons. Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) is a loud but well-meaning journalist while his son George (Julian Sands) is moody and brooding, a perfect match for the stormy Lucy.

It isn’t long before Lucy begins to fall for the handsome but aloof George, but when her aunt discovers the two kissing in the Italian countryside, Charlotte ends their Italian sojourn early and they return to England. Not long after, Lucy finds herself engaged to the foppish but well-moneyed Cecil Vyse (Gangs of New York‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). She cares for him although, it’s not the passionate, all-consuming romance she felt towards George. Lucy begins to resign herself towards her life with Cecil though when out of the blue, the Emersons move into a villa in her town and throw her entire life out of whack.

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Despite the nearly constant soporific effect that I felt during the entirety of this film, one would have to be insane to say that A Room with a View isn’t a gorgeously constructed film. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy back in the summer of 2009 and it was a life-changing experience. I could see Il Duomo from my apartment and every day on my way to class I walked by more history and art and culture than I saw in my entire life in the United States. Much like how David Lean’s Summertime captured Venice or Woody Allen’s Manhattan captured…. you know, every single frame set in Florence is a glorious ode to one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, and the scenes in England aren’t too shabby either.

And, A Room with a View is flush with brilliant performances from a truly deep well of great British actors. Denholm Elliott and Maggie Smith received Oscar nods for their turns in the film, and though they were great, they weren’t even the most impressive members of the cast to me. Dame Judi Dench (Skyfall) shines as an almost masculine and vivacious author looking for inspiration in Florence. Helena Bonham Carter shows why she would go on to be one of England’s most consistently under-appreciated stars with this early and mature performance. And Daniel Day-Lewis loses himself (as usual) in the role of the oblivious and possibly homosexual Cecil.

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But despite how well-crafted the film is from a technical perspective and an acting perspective, nothing it did could make me care about the dated comedy of manners on display and the tired/stale romance that sat at the film’s core. Longtime readers know that I have a fairly deep well of patience for deliberate pacing and slower storytelling. But, A Room with a View‘s pacing is absolutely turgid and the characters never seem to go anywhere. I can only recommend this film to the most die-hard fans of period drama and costume fanciness. Everybody else can stay at home and understand that this score is based almost entirely on the technical merits of this snooze of a film.

Final Score: B-

 

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-