Stephen-12

Reviews

Being John Malkovich
(1999)

What is going on here?
Is this a film - or an experience? Actually, what is it, and which planet did it come from? Subverting this (and several other art forms), Jonze's 'thing' - I can't call it a film - is so far out of left field, it's on a different pitch altogether. My girlfriend laughed like a drain, but I just sat open-jawed all the way through. What are we supposed to make of it? Does it matter? Jonze himself, when pressed on the film's meaning, shrugs and says "I dunno". Perhaps that's a good thing. BJM needs to stand on its own, without even the influence of its creator. Creator? Was this 'thing' created? Or did it just appear from some other dimension, warped into our own by some peculiar combination of cosmic elements? This sounds like a negative review, but I loved it. It's just hard to describe an experience which is unlike any other you've ever had. Leave your expectations at the door before seeing this one, because they'll only hinder you. If this is what 21st century cinema is going to be like, I want in. 10 out of 10, and full marks to the team behind it.

Malkovich... Malkovich...

House on Haunted Hill
(1999)

Not quite as bad as it looks ... honestly
You know this is going to be a terrible movie, in terms of script and acting, and so it is. The plot is full of contrivances and inconsistencies - and why do the characters keep going down to the basement, when they'd be much safer up in the lobby? Rush may be made up to look like Vincent Price (nice touch), but he struggles terribly with the accent, and the other performances are all at sea (except possibly Janssen, who camps up her part with some relish - probably the only way she could get through it).

Despite this, it's not all bad news. The suspense sequences may not be exactly scary, and the ultimate monster is hardly worth the money they spent on the CGI, but there are some surprisingly effective moments of Grand Guignol. The stand-out is Rush's psychotic dream sequence, which is heavily deranged in a way which seems to cross David Lynch with Redemption videos. There is also a reasonably effective pre-credits sequence (and the credits themselves are nicely handled).

In other words, wait for the video, but do give it a chance, because there is some imagination at work here. Better resources might make Malone a truly original and interesting director in the future (provided he promises never to use Marilyn Manson on the soundtrack again...).

American Beauty
(1999)

Beautiful and compelling
I know this is comment no. 940, but what the hell.

American Beauty is in some ways the antithesis of the equally brilliant Fight Club. Both concern men with their best years behind them, stuck in meaningless, middle-class jobs, who embrace extreme behaviour in an attempt to recapture meaning in their lives, with fatal consequences. Fight Club is the more dangerous, more radical and ultimately more nihilistic side of the coin. American Beauty is on safer territory, but its ultimate vision of the beauty of life is more affirmative and uplifting. Both films are masterpieces in their individual ways, but it says something about Hollywood that American Beauty will probably win the Oscar, whereas Fight Club probably won't even be nominated.

On top of this, one can only marvel at the performances, at Thomas Newman's wonderful and memorable score, at Conrad Hall's glowing photography, at the poised and profound script, and at Mendes's loving direction, his debt to theatre immediately obvious. The plastic bag sequence had me in tears. If a film leaves me feeling, as Ricky puts it, that God has looked straight at you, then I give it a 10, whatever its flaws. Like Good Will Hunting, this film transcends cinema and touches your life, without ever stirring your cynicism. For that reason alone, American Beauty is a triumph.

Wonderland
(1999)

Beautiful and intelligent
Easily the best British film for several months. Winterbottom sees the London which all who live here know and love through a barely-distanced eye. We move with the characters, we live alongside them, the film brings them an immediacy and relevance which mainstream cinema rarely tackles. The plot (what little there is) contains more drama - not to mention coincidences - than real life, but this is compensated for by the film's texture, moving from warm to cold and back again, depending on the scene and its location. Nyman's score veers between irritating and deeply moving, approaching its best in the fireworks sequence. The Dogme-style technique is less annoying than in its Danish counterparts (Winterbottom doesn't seem to have so much trouble staying in focus). Odd to think this script was written by a Frenchwoman. Hey ho.

Dogma
(1999)

Peculiar
Briefly...

I've never seen a film that was so brilliant and so dreadful at the same time. Smith occasionally produces moments of utter brilliance, eg

Rickman's deeply moving account of how he had to persuade the boy Jesus to take on his saviourhood;

the subversion of the church's desire to become 'hip';

the entire sequence with the mute God;

the review of accepted Biblical content;

the (under-explored) tension between Catholicism and abortion.

In fact, it's when Smith becomes theological that the film succeeds, even if his standpoint is questionable. Unfortunately, the film as a film is a mess - too many characters, glib dialogue which throws away the jokes, clumsy editing, and a plot which seems to have been stitched together in a hurry. This looks like a half-finished screenplay, an early draft in need of trimming.

Thank goodness, then, for the talent on offer: Linda Fiorentino's performance is robust and occasionally profound, and she carries the entire movie. Matt and Ben aren't given enough to do, and the film squanders their obvious talent. Rickman doesn't surprise, since he is usually splendid. Other characters can annoy more than produce enjoyment (Hayek, Rock, and particularly Mewes - this is my first Kevin Smith film, and I was sick of Mewes by the end, so God knows how all the people who've seen Amy and Clerks must think of him).

I enjoyed the film very much, despite these flaws, but wish Smith had taken his time and put the script through some more re-drafts, because we might have had a masterpiece. Still, 7 out of 10, because I had fun.

Bride of Frankenstein
(1935)

My favourite horror film, and here's why
The Bride now belongs among the immortals in horror history, and deservedly so. In place of the starkness of its equally good original, we have a camped-up style which would be excessive and indulgent in another context, but works a treat here. Art direction and cinematography are glowing and spectacular (especially the trick photography with the miniature people at the beginning), and Waxman's score is justly famous, but it is in the performances that the greatest treasures lie.

Ernest Thesiger should be canonised, if only for his appearances here and in The Old Dark House. His eccentric portrayal barely conceals how much he's enjoying himself. Karloff builds on the sensitivity he brought across in the first film, and Lanchester's brief appearances are vivid and memorable. A shame we have to tolerate the woodenness of Clive and Hobson, and suffer Hurlbut's rather worthy script - but these are factors of their time, and easily forgiveable.

Where the film scores most highly is in its self-parody, its occasional radicalism, and its off-beat humour ("Praetorius? There's no such name!"). Early Monty Python, one might say, yet somehow superior and more timeless. This is the zenith of comic horror - and, if it's never actually frightening, who cares?

The Muse
(1999)

Not bad, though not a classic
Brooks's rip-off of Hollywood is surprisingly gentle, and there's too much space between the jokes. Promising plotlines (alcoholism, the muse's vengeance, the gifts) are left undeveloped, and there seems to be little conflict in the main storyline.

That said, the playing is bright (MacDowell is particularly good, possibly her best performance), and there are several excellent one-liners. Best bits include the conversation at Spago (over-milked, but funny) and the Scorsese jokes, which alone make the film worth seeing.

Fight Club
(1999)

Scorching
As with so many other big films, there are too many comments for mine not to be lost in the mass, so I'll try to be brief.

The film contains many platitudes about self-realisation, all of which we've heard before, but it sites them in a context so raw and vivid that they emerge fresh, and thereby communicate themselves to the viewer so directly that they become more powerful, more compulsive. If the film finally runs out of steam - because once you're on the destructive rollercoaster, you can't stop until it crashes - its early sequences provide a hard-hitting (no pun intended) and yet stylish approach to the vacuity of modern life (I particularly like the deconstruction of Ikea, as the proud owner of an Ikea futon).

I wrote a novel last year in which the main character, frustrated with the emptiness of his life, is drawn by a somewhat insane other character into more and more extreme behaviour. Having seen Fight Club, I can safely tear up my manuscript, because Fincher and Uhls have conveyed the same message much more powerfully than I was able to.

Fincher's direction may suffer from occasional gimmickry, but even the most apparently gratuitous moments are not without purpose. And Uhls's script is beautifully constructed. This is one of those rare films in which the voice-over technique really works.

Ultimately, this movie is about subversion - not just against social norms, not just against the bourgeois mindset, but even against cinema itself (as shown by the overt subliminal imagery). It's so good to come across something so genuinely radical, with the cinema now over a hundred years old. Good, too, that it came out of a major studio. And good, let's not forget, that this film is extremely funny.

Come on, hit me, you know you want to...

The Blair Witch Project
(1999)

Overrated, but it needed to be made
All right, very very briefly:

It's overrated (it's not really scary at all, except for the last five minutes, when it really comes alive). But it needed to be made, because it's broken the mould of horror film-making. It shows some intelligence, and the film-makers have reaped the reward of their courage. As an experiment, it's first class. But if you want to be scared, go see Sixth Sense or rent The Exorcist or The Shining...or better still, come to London and go and see the play 'The Woman in Black'. Now that really IS frightening.

Mind you, I saw BWP in Sweden, with irritating Swedish subtitles, and a restless audience. And my girlfriend hated it. Not ideal circumstances. Shame, really. Walk in the woods, anyone?

The Sixth Sense
(1999)

Effectively chilling and intelligently made
This is good stuff, but since there are already so many comments, I'll be brief:

The direction is excellent - everyday buildings sprout monstrous gargoyles (I don't know if everyone spotted it, but there is a moment near the beginning where the skyscrapers in the background appear to have demonic, grinning faces); subdued or oblique lighting intensifies the air of menace; the shocks, few though they are, are impeccably timed.

One should praise Tak Fujimoto and James Newton Howard for their excellent contributions.

The performances are restrained, but not bland. Colette is at her finest, as usual. Haley Joel Osment is a revelation, one of the best child performances ever (note the bit in the church where, from the balcony, he talks to Willis with the weariness and sarcasm of a much-lived adult).

THAT twist...well, it's reasonably unpredictable, but it's a shame it isn't really developed. In fact, the film seems to disappear into a blandness at the end which reminds you it was made in Hollywood - which is a shame, after so much good value along the way. And, as you think about the twist, you realise it's actually illogical. Oh, well, I'll say no more about it.

Overall, the film will be compared to Blair Witch, though it doesn't resemble it much. What it's really like is a cross between The Shining (which is inferior) and The Innocents (which remains superior, because it is much more bitter and chilling). In fact, the appearance of the first ghost in Sixth Sense so closely resembles a moment in The Innocents, that I can't believe it's not been copied. Still, this is not really a criticism - this is fine, intelligent, thoughtful film-making, and how often does that come from a studio picture these days?

Ride with the Devil
(1999)

Not bad, off-beat
An unconventional historical drama, with some fine battle scenes. Tobey Maguire gives an excellent performance, and gets some pretty good back-up. The script is literate and pretty original, and the film is kept mercifully free of heroes. That said, it does drag a bit, and the last reel is too much like a TV mini-series. Still, Frederick Elmes's camerawork keeps one interested in the dull bits (and every now and again you see a shot which reminds you he worked for David Lynch). Worth seeing.

Lola rennt
(1998)

Franka Potente is GORGEOUS!
Gorgeous Franka Potente runs around for much of the duration of this film, displaying an athletic and aesthetic appeal which is probably worth the ticket price alone. But to be serious...

Much of it is, as others have noted, just a rehash of ideas first used in 'Sliding Doors' and 'Groundhog Day'. Tykwer, however, isn't interested in being twee or slushy, preferring to subject us to an intense beating soundtrack, and an editing style which makes Russ Meyer look like a first-year film student with ten thumbs. Yes, the narrative repetitions risk becoming boring (and thank goodness the film is so short), and there are moments which seem to have been slotted in to pad the experience out for a decent length of time, but the way the narrative plays with temporal and spatial concepts is brilliant, albeit in a flashy way. The mixed media (conventional film, video, animation) again may not be new (Natural Born Killers, even Annie Hall, for heaven's sake) but, darn it, it works.

This isn't a profound film, and it would be easy to criticise it as gimmicky. But it's an important calling card from Tykwer, and reminds me very much of similarly innovative cinema of recent times, such as Tetsuo, Festen and Pi. 7 out of 10.

And Franka Potente is GORGEOUS!!!

Eyes Wide Shut
(1999)

No, unfortunately
Since there are already buckets of comments about EWS, I'll be brief:

1) Hard to believe this really was the final cut. Scenes disappear into nowhere, the pace is sometimes deadly slow, and the whole structure looks indulgent, even by Kubrick's standards.

2) Too much Cruise and not enough Kidman, who brings a tremendous virtuosity and depth to her limited part.

3) As always with Stan, utterly brilliant use of Ligeti's music, which stopped me from hating the film altogether. Nice camerawork and lighting in places, too.

4) Good bits: the row in the apartment (contains the best writing in an otherwise unworthy script); the orgy (though only for its style, not for its content); the moment when Cruise finds the mask; er... that's it.

5) Why doesn't Sydney Pollack act more often? He's terrific!

6) I don't have a problem with sex in movies, but here it was gratuitous and actually rather sad. One can, unfortunately, easily imagine Kubrick doing the editing using only one hand.

7) The last line is predictable and stupid, and rather trivialises the whole thing.

In short, EWS can't make up its mind whether it's a Hitchcockian thriller or a psychological study of sexual relations within a couple. If SK had stuck to the latter, it would probably have been a very good film. Unfortunately, despite flashes of his previous brilliance, this one doesn't work, and it's sad that this is the note he went out on. Still, at least Cruise nearly manages to act.

Election
(1999)

Well, I rather liked it
Since there are so many comments on this one, I'll throw in just a few of my own:

1. I don't know why everyone was so surprised that Reese Witherspoon can act. I've been impressed with her every time I've seen her since 'Twilight' (where she also takes her top off, incidentally). I think she will get onto the Oscar list, despite everyone's pessimism.

2. Jessica Campbell is under-used. Had she been given more to do, she'd also be a worthy contender for the Academy.

3. Having been on the receiving end of election manipulation in my time, I can testify to the accuracy of the events in the film. In fact, I thought they were mild.

4. About time Matthew Broderick did something interesting.

5. Nice script, including a single but prominent use of the C-word in a nicely judged comic moment.

6. The flaws: multiple voice-over is irritating; they could have trimmed five minutes off the end, since the film seems to peter out; Tracy's hustings speech isn't strong enough, considering her intelligence; and how come so many people would actually vote for such an annoying little ******* anyway???.

7. The depictions of marital sex seem extremely plausible. It really can be that routine and inconsequential, folks...

Still, it made me laugh a lot (and wince at the mid-life crisis moments). 8 out of 10, and thanks. This sits alongside 'Rushmore' as one of the most interesting contributions to High School Cinema (my God, it's actually a MOVEMENT...).

The Innocents
(1961)

Great
I can't add much to what the other members have said, except to note that a side by side comparison of The Innocents and The Haunting (the original version, that is) is worth making, if only to show two quite different approaches to horror film-making. The Haunting is certainly scary, and its photography is superb, but next to the Innocents it is too noisy and brightly lit to be counted as one of the greatest of spinechillers.

Clayton's film, on the other hand, uses subdued lighting, sustained long-distance shots and the occasional (utterly unpredictable) surprise moment to generate a superior, unsettling experience - and he handles the paedophile sub-text with care and delicacy. This director was often workmanlike, but he excelled himself on this occasion (we might also recall Roy Ward Baker, another generally sleeves-rolled-up director who surpassed himself with one film - in his case, the incomparable Quatermass and the Pit). It really goes without saying how good Freddie Francis's photography is. Lousy director, great lighter. Even the normally irritating Deborah Kerr is sympathetic. 9 out of 10. Those who have enjoyed Blair Witch (which I haven't seen yet) should seek this out.

Todo sobre mi madre
(1999)

Enjoyable and deep
Almodovar has really matured. 'Women on the Verge' was a lot of fun, but ultimately fairly superficial. In recent years, he seems to have started to turn his back on kinky sex and excessive behaviour, and probe the human psyche with a lot more depth and subtlety. This tender film is the latest stage in this ascending path, and very welcome it is, too.

Cecilia Roth's performance is utterly convincing - profound, varied, humane. The other characters are strongly drawn, too. The photography is excellent, and even the tricksy shots aren't too distracting. The narrative is not without surprises (the tragic event early in the film is called to mind constantly without ever becoming maudlin). It's a little slow in places, and there are moments of unintentional humour, but overall this represents the best work of this director that I have seen.

Carnival of Souls
(1962)

Unique
Whether Herk Harvey ever watched Val Lewton's 40s horror classics, I can't say, but he certainly seems to have re-invented that producer's style for the TV generation. That this film was a one-off project by an industrial documentary maker makes it even more peculiar.

As in Lewton's films, script and acting are both abysmal, so let us pay them no more attention. Again, as with Lewton, it's the atmosphere which distinguishes this work from other low-budget shockers. By the use of sustained shots, minimised lighting, sound (or lack of it) and the slightest make-up, Harvey manages to create a vision that is simply terrifying at the most fundamental level. We might quibble that the zombies are corny, or even that Hilligoss deserves what she gets, but these seem like details in the face of the remorseless chill.

It's possible David Lynch may have seen this film in his youth - if so, you can see possible influences in the disjointed style, the inappropriate dialogue, the use of public buildings to hide sinister elements, aspects shared between his films and this one.

In any event, I vastly prefer this film over Night of the Living Dead, which takes the same elements and removes most of the subtlety (in Carnival, we never actually see violence committed by the zombies). This film would never have won an award, but in its own limited genre it may be the best of its kind.

Les yeux sans visage
(1960)

Beautiful and hideous at once
This is one of those oddities that makes an interest in cinema worthwhile. Like the equally atmospheric Carnival of Souls, it was made by a director whose primary activity lay in documentaries, and can very much be regarded as a 'one-off'.

Franju's vision is at once beautiful and emetic: on the one hand, we have the stunning face of Edith Scob, the weird sight of her masked figure running into the night, the sequences which are held for longer than seems natural; on the other hand, arguably the most nauseating operation scenes committed to film (and somehow more unpleasant for being in black and white). The atmosphere is one of quiet poetry, but the juxtaposition with horror makes it unusual and effective. A connoisseur's delight. 9 out of 10. See it, if you can stomach it.

Cookie's Fortune
(1999)

Nice
This has the same laid-back, easy feel as the equally underrated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Both films share the drawback of over-plotting, but both overcome it with rich performances, wit in the script and a light directorial touch which stops you worrying about the denouement.

The nicest surprise is to see Tyler and O'Donnell, two actors I have always regarded as soporific, finally come out of their shells and produce something credible and expansive. In fact, there is not one weak link in the cast - even Glenn Close seems idiomatic in her OTT character.

Altman directs with obvious affection and, even if the ending is not really in doubt from the start, there is plenty to enjoy along the way. Altman's best since Short Cuts, and 9 out of 10. I'd happily sit through it again.

The Theory of Flight
(1998)

Pretty decent stuff, actually
Despite its low-key release in this country, and its apparent disregard in other countries (the 'R' rating in the States can't have helped - honestly, just because HBC uses the C-word!), this is actually a fine piece of work. The sentimentality does occasionally threaten to choke it, but it's overcome by the playing of the two leads.

It's easy to win plaudits just because you're playing a physical or mental cripple (Daniel Day-Lewis, Geoffrey Rush, Dustin Hoffman, etc.), and Helena Bonham-Carter may not quite capture the physical degradation of MND, but her vocal stretching and ruthless emotional drive compensate entirely. In fact, almost all her performance is conducted through her eyes (and what eyes!). This is an intelligent turn from an actress who is rapidly undoing her English Rose reputation, and emerging as a figure of some stature. Awards must surely follow, though not, alas, for this fine performance.

Branagh, one feels, has never quite given his best on film (except possibly 'Hamlet', and there his playing was diluted by the large cast). Here, though, he tops his other appearances, playing to the hilt a self-loathing, unstable, ultimately lovable guy with a subtlety he hasn't always displayed, and exhibiting both intelligence and depth. In short, we believe him, just as much as we could NOT believe him as Frankenstein, as the priest in 'The Proposition', as the lawyer in 'The Gingerbread Man', even as Andrew in 'Peter's Friends'. This is surely his finest performance yet - so why could he not produce the goods much earlier?

As a film, it looks more like a television offering, and without its stars it probably wouldn't amount to very much. But it's been a pleasure to see this pair perform their socks off like this, and I eagerly await more from them (though not 'Love's Labour's Lost'...). 8 out of 10, but Branagh and HBC get 10 out of 10.

Last Night
(1998)

Highbrow and high class
Last Night takes a literary brush (excuse the mixed metaphor) to the question of Armageddon, and paints a restrained, intelligent, ultimately warm picture of humanity. I'm not bothered by what other users have said about the cliches, or the locations. I am slightly bothered that some of the pieces seem to go nowhere (Khanjian's cameo makes no obvious point, and Cronenberg seems to be sleepwalking through his part). Nevertheless, the tremendous delicacy and subtlety displayed by McKellar considerably outweigh the film's drawbacks. And Sandra Oh's performance is magnificent - again, restraint is the watchword. The climax is surprisingly moving, given how little McKellar has done overtly to engage our emotions. And there's plenty of humour, too.

I felt I was participating in this movie, not merely watching it. McKellar is a fine writer - not much of an actor (have you SEEN eXistenZ?), but a fine writer - and clearly an intelligent director. We need people like him in cinema.

The Black Cat
(1934)

Wickedly splendid
Like Bride of Frankenstein, this horror is ahead of its time. The script may be potty, and the performances hammy as ever (though I find Karloff nicely subtle), but the architectural set design and the despairing atmosphere of imminent death make the film's texture rich and compelling (and genuinely creepy in places, such as when Karloff sits up in bed). The sinister and gory detail are radical moves for a film of its time, and remain unequalled by mainstream horror in this period. Suspend your disbelief (why don't the honeymooners just walk out of the house?) and indulge in some wicked fun.

Eraserhead
(1977)

You've got your good things...
I'd never put Eraserhead down as one of the hundred best films of all time, but it remains a personal favourite, since I first encountered it (happily, on a big screen) about 12 years ago.

I can accept that the film is a personal statement by Lynch, reflecting his own distress at accidental parenthood, but this matters less to me than the film's unique atmosphere. Certainly, it's hard to watch in places (Laurel Near's facial deformity is particularly repugnant, as is the sequence where Charlotte Stewart rubs her eye), but the rawness of the images make it compulsive viewing. How sad that Lynch couldn't match this in anything he's done subsequently (Twin Peaks, which I simply adore, still can't come up to the same standard).

Here's an interesting thing to try: go and get a recording - any one - of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, and listen to it all the way through. Then tell me that doesn't make you think of this film. Honestly, try it.

Just cut them up like regular chickens...

Wicked, Wicked
(1973)

A disgrace, an insult - how dare they?
I can hardly begin to express what a disgusting, worthless piece of excrement this film is. When you consider how much talent there is in film-making, to know that a major studio (admittedly, on its last legs) funded this garbage makes you want to grab a sharp implement.

Why is it so awful? All right (deep breath):

1. The split screen. It's distracting. It adds nothing to the narrative. It isn't used to make a point (as Tarantino does in Jackie Brown). It's just there as a selling feature.

2. The performances. God help us.

3. The script. God continue to help us.

4. The story itself. Who the hell thought this would be an original idea?

5. The child abuse sequences. So appallingly exploitative, so unworthily sickening, so POINTLESS...I wanted to throw something at the TV.

6. The tacky tone. The sexual puns are puerile beyond belief. The Farrelly brothers would never have stooped this low.

7. The theme song. Still stuck in my head after about 10 years. GO AWAY!!!!

There are plenty of other reasons why this obscenity should be thrown into the Pit of Hell, but I really can't bear to go any further. Every copy of this should be consigned to fire, and everybody involved in it should be taken outside and shot, their bodies burnt, their ashes buried and the whole site concreted over.

If this diatribe persuades people to go and see it, it has failed in its mission. Don't ever employ its maker to do anything again, I implore you.

The least enjoyable bad film ever made. Can I give it a minus score, please?

The Alphabet
(1969)

Art as horror
Lynch's first film is a bizarre, revolting and terrifying account of a bedridden young girl apparently being tortured by the alphabet. The letters appear as weird, threatening shapes which (as in his follow-up The Grandmother) seem to take on plant form. The girl herself eventually vomits blood.

The film's meaning isn't clear, and is really of less important than the visuals, which are themselves like moving paintings. The innocence of the child's 'ABC' rhyming song is warped to give a frighteningly naive background to the horrific events.

Lynch's trademark is the expression of fear, and this short foregrounds that motif in the most disturbing way imaginable. Fans of this director should try and catch his debut, as it casts its shadow over much of his later work.

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