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Reviews

Zodiac
(2007)

Disappointing, uneven
Zodiac was surprisingly poorly done given the pedigree of all involved. This very long movie is pretty horrible until we jump forward in time to the late 70's, when it finally finds its stride and becomes quite engaging. Overall it is paced and edited almost like a comedy -- late cuts into scenes to get a few lines of zippy dialog, then quick cuts out to rush on to the next plot point. It completely doesn't work as a creepy, suspenseful serial killer movie, which requires long slow takes full of dread and anticipation.

There basically is very little interest by Fincher is the actual crimes (the original Zodiac killing doesn't even make the cut, as we start halfway through his spree 6 months later). Instead he is focused on a kind of shifting buddy movie (first between Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. as co-workers at the San Francisco Chronicle, then later between Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo as detective David Toschi). This is a weirdly Hollywood move to me -- let's make the movie about the all-American (if flawed) good guys, not about the killer or the victims or the dread in the city at large.

Downey, Jr. is awful -- straight up. It's a scenery-chewing performance you'd expect to find at a community theatre. Anthony Edwards -- as Ruffalo's partner -- is pretty bad too. Brian Cox's portrayal of Melvin Belli is ridiculous and doesn't ring true. There's just a LOT of bad acting in this movie.

My sense after watching it, and seeing how immensely the movie improved once it got to the late 70's and turns into a kind of Richard-Dreyfuss-Close-Encounters movie about a man destroying his family life with a weird obsession, is that it should have started in the late 70's then flashed back to the original story in the late 60's as needed (which might have been very little indeed, given all the bad performances in that part of the footage).

A small detail but one that somehow captures the weird, unpoetic and uncomfortable relationship this movie has with its own narrative: as we zip around from location to location we are constantly being given subtitles telling us where we are. I.e., "The Corner of Washington and Cherry" -- and every time we go back there we get that title again -- as if we can't recognize the location on our own. Well, we CAN'T recognize it, because Fincher failed to associate an iconic image with the intersection that he could cut to at the start of the scene to place us, without using subtitles. The movie is just klutzy throughout in hundreds of little ways like that, distracting you from the story with its graceless style. By the end I felt like it was made by people just clocking in to earn a paycheck.

In a way I think the best movie about the VIBE of the Zodiac (without being about him at all) is Phillip Kaufman's very creepy Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1978 and set in the same San Francisco -- it could be seen as a metaphor for the breaking down of the social contract (as most viciously embodied by someone like the Zodiac) in late 70's America.

Designated Survivor
(2016)

The Garbage We Deserve?
(This review is written after watching the first two episodes and will be revised if latter developments warrant it -- but that seems highly improbable).

When I sit down to watch a new series about the United States Capitol Building being blown to smithereens with the majority of top federal officials inside it (including the President and his cabinet), I'm not expecting a work of spiritual art like Kieslowski's Decalog. I am fully aware that what I'm in for -- at best -- is some good dumb fun.

With those expectations in mind, this show is so incredibly stupid, so homogeneously driven by bland stereotypes, so mind-numbingly unchallenging, and really just plain offensive to anyone with a normal amount of critical intelligence that its complete rottenness becomes not just about the show itself but about the vacuous, empty chasm at the heart of Hollywood that allows millions of dollars to be spent producing worthless pablum like this.

Let's start with the obligatory disaster-movie nuclear family at the center of this thing. They are perfect: the beautiful wife, the all-American husband, the angelic daughter. Only the troublesome long-haired teenager (however, in fact, milquetoast he actually is in real world terms) presents a fly in the chardonnay. In fact, they aren't real people, and the fact that they are not real people is the clue to what this entire series really is: it's a fantasy about the decency of the white suburban nuclear family triumphing over the terrifying chaos of the big scary world outside. And, folks, that is literally all this series is.

To counterbalance this stereotypical white nuclear family that must be at the center of all things, we are forced to endure the obligatory multicultural cast of supporting characters, grindingly and joylessly portrayed by actors who surely know exactly what is going down: the White House speechwriter who looks just "other" enough with his olive skin to be challenged by police; the jar-headed, pig-brained defense adviser who looks like Beetle Bailey's "Sarge" on steroids; the ethically unimpeachable African-American FBI Deputy Director; the brainy yet stunning Asian-American woman thinking a step ahead of everyone else in very, very tight shirts.

This kind of garbage is hard enough to take in our daily allotment of bank and insurance commercials, but it's unwatchable in an hour-long TV series.

Let's address the realism: there isn't any. OK, we've completed that topic.

No, seriously: do you really think the U.S. government is so unprepared for such a disaster that we would end up the day after with the chief of staff of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development vetting candidates for Secretary of State? Really? I mean do you really think that will ever happen in any world? Don't you know that ever since the 1950's the United States has been prepared for a strategic nuclear strike from the Soviet Union or elsewhere that would not just take out the U.S. Capitol building but 80% of the urban population of the country? And you don't think they have anything in place better than -- hey let's put all the survivors in a room and let them yell at each other until Kiefer Sutherland slips out the back and goes to catch some Pokemon Go in the Cabinet Room?

(No, he doesn't actually do that -- because the people who wrote and produced this show are too dumb, humorless and culturally out of it to include anything that human and real and ridiculous).

And do you think that one becomes the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in this country by being The Best Dad in the World, whose only blemish in life is that he wears glasses?

Why, no, that is not, in fact, how the world operates.

Who this character should have been, and could have been, is a portly, buffoonish (but highly intelligent) master of the shadowy corridors of political power -- Tony Soprano meets Chris Christie meets Al Sharpton. A huge, oversized, compelling character with more skeletons in his closet than an out-of-season haunted house; but someone who also finds himself, surprising to no one more than the face in the mirror, with humility and patriotism when faced with such a daunting task.

But, I ask too much.

So, for starters, how about we just allow the Asian chick to dress like a professional FBI field agent and not like a Victoria's Secret t-shirt model?

Wise Blood
(1979)

Strange, disturbing, and dated
This is a very strange film -- disturbing and dark, but shot in an almost unaesthetic made-for-TV movie kind of way. Some of the musical choices, in particular, stand out as dated and goofy -- moments where things seem strange, disjointed and upsetting but are set to rollicking circus music (and not in an ironic way), as if the whole thing is in good fun.

Because I haven't read the source material by Flannery O'Connor I'm unable to pass any judgment on how fully Huston captured the original characters. What I will say, is that as a child of the South in the 70's, there is a wistful documentary-quality to seeing the kind of ragged simplicity and charmingly trashy culture that we all grew up with back then. By comparison I think we have all become extremely self-conscious about a kind of forced cosmopolitanism by now (small batch mustard and all that jazz; beer connoisseurs; locally-sourced beef).

As some other commenters noted, the casual use of the n-word by so many people seems unrealistic and shocking, in that amongst my middle class small-town family and acquaintances, it would never have been used, not out of political correctness per se, but because its use, back then, would have identified you as white trash (ironically enough). But, without meaning to sound disparaging, this story is in some sense about "white trash" so maybe in fact that is how people on the bottom of the social ladder spoke back then. (It's notable that the word isn't used with any meanness, but just out of a century of habit).

This is not, by far, a great movie. But there is some really tremendous acting. Besides the obvious kudos for Brad Dourif, I found the most extraordinary performance to be that given by Amy Wright as Sabbath Lily. Erotic and sweetly screwed up, she provides the most human spark in a movie that is otherwise about some incredibly malignant and lost characters.

For me as a fan of 1970's movies, this is a must-see, but I would advise going in that the film does seem extremely dated at times. Despite that it's interesting and unpredictable and full of dark psychological twists and turns that remind you how much more meaningful drama can be than the latest superhero movie at the cineplex.

Mad Men: Lady Lazarus
(2012)
Episode 8, Season 5

tomorrow never knows
All I know is the closing montage to The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" is Mad Men at its zenith. I go back again and again to watch this sequence on YouTube because it puts chills down my back every time. There's so much poetic detail, all so subtly done, but to give one example, when Alexis Biedel (as Beth Dawes) draws a heart in the condensation of the car window, rolls it down, then back up again and everything is wiped clean, it's a crushing premonition of what is to come in her story. It's fitting that they put it all to the greatest recording the Beatles ever made.

That's all I have to say but IMDb demands 10 lines of text, so here you go.

San Andreas
(2015)

Watchable, ridiculous, all-American histrionics
I'm feeling generous -- I'm going to give San Andreas a 4 out of 10. That's on account of some impressive special effects work, and the fact that as terrible as the script is, it doesn't devolve into the kind of non-stop chaos that too many current big summer movies resort to. The film is at least watchable in some basic sense.

Now, to the story: I described the plot of this movie -- before seeing it -- to a friend and I'd say I got 80% of the details correct. That's how formulaic and predictable these kind of movies have become: the family patriarch will rescue his beautiful family while the world burns around them; we end with their triumphant reunion, somehow along the way forgetting that, you know, millions of people have died so the good fortune of one upper middle class American family isn't really all that potent of a tonic for what we've witnessed.

At its heart, a movie like San Andreas is a kind of ideological propaganda: the supremacy of the all-American nuclear family over any chaos the world can throw at it. This film mixes in a strong dose of patriotism (from Dwayne Johnson's heroic status as an Afghan War veteran, to the unfurling of the American flag from the broken Golden Gate bridge at the end) to supplement this family-over-all message.

However, the problem here is that Johnson's Ray Gaines actions are not patriotic. Far from it, they are a grave dereliction of duty. As a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue helicopter pilot, his job is to serve the greater good. Instead he selfishly rescues his estranged wife from the tony penthouse restaurant where she was having lunch, and then, even worse, the two of them head to San Francisco (in an LAFD helicopter!) to save their daughter.

It should go without saying that a Los Angeles fireman's first job is to assist Los Angelenos in the aftermath of a 9.1 Southern California earthquake, not to steal one of our taxpayer-bought helicopters and fly it to San Francisco. (I would have loved to have been in the writers' room when they hammered this plot point out.)

Indeed, the essence of "patriotism" should be that Ray trusts San Francisco firefighters to stay on duty and do their job, while he does the same in Los Angeles. If every firefighter in California behaved like Ray Gaines, no one would be rescued because all the firetrucks and helicopters would have been racing across the state to various colleges to rescue (exceptionally well-endowed) daughters.

I'd like to see a movie about the thousands of people who died in East Los Angeles while Ray was flying north up the Central Valley for several hours.

It's funny -- on the way into San Andreas I heard the guy in front of me say, about Mad Max: Fury Road, "I wasn't too impressed... it was more of a political, women's empowerment kind of thing." How many people come out of San Andreas and recognize that it is even more political than the Mad Max film? The difference is that this is a propaganda film for all-American values (patriarchy, family, physical work -- i.e. the latter is contrasted with the step-father, a designer or architect, who is shown to be morally repugnant), while Mad Max has a message that subverts and provokes those assumed values. I dunno -- I'm not very political but it seems pretty funny to me that only the subversive film is recognized as being ideological. Think about it.

Great special effects, though!

Mad Max: Fury Road
(2015)

Midnight movie from the 80's!
I've seen Mad Max: Fury Road twice and tried to see it a third time tonight. (They were only showing 3D screenings after 8:30 p.m. so I had to pass... who's with me on this? 3D is for kids...)

Since I very rarely watch movies twice in a theater, this is an odd impulse, which I don't entirely understand, made more odd by the fact that I didn't like the movie too much the first time I saw it. I didn't like it, but I also felt I was in the absolute wrong frame of mind to digest what was being thrown at me on the screen. So I went back.

What I found on second viewing is that Mad Max: Fury Road is the filmic equivalent of an unbelievably great, if slightly challenging, hard rock record. The pleasure in watching it isn't really story and suspense (there's little of either), but just soaking in the craziness, the out of this world textures (cars, costumes, weapons), the awesome soundtrack (music and effects). During the second screening it seemed for most of the show I had a huge smile plastered across my face, because I felt so in tune and aware of all of these elements intertwining. When I wanted to go back a third time tonight, it was with the same impulse that I might want to listen to a great record again. To take that journey once again, and to capture even more nuance and subtlety in the compelling vision being played out on the screen.

In the end I feel like this movie captures something lost about my teenage movie-going in the 80's, when we used to go see stuff like A Clockwork Orange; Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii; or Texas Chainsaw Massacre Pt. 2; and (not always of sober mind) have really extreme audio-visual experiences in a movie theatre. That kind of filmmaking to my mind has largely been lost in an era of, on the one hand, incredibly dumb Hollywood movies, and on the other, extremely self-consciously "arty" films made to impress critics.

For me, it's great to see George Miller, for at least one shining moment, explore other possibilities with the medium.

Der Rote Baron
(2008)

WWI for 21st Century Teenagers
This movie turns Manfred von Richtofen into an Abercrombie & Fitch model, prancing around in expensive scarves and dashing hats, batting his feminine eyes and pouting boyishly. The love story is straight out of a soap opera -- she emerging from his combat tent, disheveled, as he climbs into the cockpit, perfectly coiffed for battle.

The CGI combat scenes are enjoyable to some extent for a WWI aviation enthusiast like myself, but at the end of the day they are not in the same league whatsoever with the 1930 movie Hell's Angels, so you must concede that in 80-odd years we have only gone backwards in that department.

Most disappointing about this film are the gross liberties taken with history. While a bit of fudging is to be expected, this movie simply pays no heed to actual events, reshaping every persona and story to suit its inane melodramatic sensibilities. The irony is that the real history is far more interesting and captivating than what the B-team screenwriters have come up with here.

Some day they will make a better movie out of the raw historical facts being cast aside here, and I hope I live to see it.

Melancholia
(2011)

Dizzifying
Melancholia made me dizzy -- literally and figuratively. It's "one of those movies" that uses sloppy, seasick hand-held camera-work (or a simulacrum of such) to create a supposedly "edgy" feel that, maybe, once upon a time, suggested cinema verité documentaries and super-low-budget guerrilla-made features. The thing is, it actually carries none of that information anymore -- the look has been so thoroughly co-opted by 2nd-rate Hollywood television series and 3rd-rate movies that it is nothing today but a purely stylistic conceit, and one that is predictable, pretentious and irritating. At best you cease to notice it; at worst, as when after Kirsten Dunst delivers a particularly strong line near the end of the movie and the camera operator does a quick push-in-zoom to emphasize her emotions, it comes off as the aesthetic of cheesy reality television. Ironically, in its effort to seem "real", the actual result is to emphasize that you are watching something highly stylized, and not in an interesting way.

All these artistic failures of the camera style only add insult to injury, as the movie literally had me covering my eyes for long portions, as I sat there in a cold, clammy sweat, ready to stumble into the men's room and vomit if it became necessary.

That I sat through such physical uncomfortableness to make it to the end of this movie is a testament to how otherwise compelling and interesting it is. It's a weird combination: Last Year at Marienbad meets Armageddon... but it's mostly Marienbad with Armageddon as the scenic, rather than dramatic, backdrop. In its languid, dreamy pace, to me it actually captured far better the psychological state of such an impending, magnificent disaster than the typical pedal-to-the-metal Hollywood blockbuster. You felt the sick fear, the anticipation, the disbelief, and mostly the sadness of everything. More than almost any movie I can think of, Melancholia communicates the immense scope and power of the oncoming destructive force: a force that is literally not on a human scale and thus cannot be comprehended by humans, except in the most primitive of ways -- holding up a handmade wire loop to see if it is growing nearer or far; watching animals for a cue how to respond; tasting the diminishing oxygen in the air and knowing... knowing.

The way Justine's mental illness dovetails with the psychological suffering that all will soon experience is gracefully done, and you are left to wonder: were her mental problems simply the effect of her prescience, her foreknowledge of things to come (as we see in the opening sequence, which to me is in retrospect a look at her dreams and hallucinations), or is there something deeper wrong with her which coincidentally makes her more sensitive to the oncoming storm? "Life on earth is evil," she says, making you feel that she herself is some alien, malignant force that is in opposition to the everyday, biological desires of the other animals: she rebuffs her husband; beats her horse cruelly; loathes her sister and her boss. She is a force to be reckoned with, even before the planet Melancholia makes its appearance.

Apart from the glaring misstep of the camera-work (besides my suffering, something drove several people from the screening early, and I suspect it was that rather than the story, though without exit interviews, who knows for sure?), this is a superb movie that you won't forget anytime soon. It's a sad tale, full of darkness, both on the macro scale (the planet), and the micro (the unhappy wedding and all the bitter relationships revealed therein). It's not going to send you out into the streets with fresh wind in your sails to conquer the bad guys in your life. But it will make you think, make you look at the sky differently, perhaps, and make you wonder what life is all about anyway, and that's what you look for in the movies, after all, isn't it? That and some great special effects -- and Melancholia has some super special effects, too.

Brighton Rock
(1948)

truly brilliant
This is simply one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. It's a prototype for Scorsese's great gangster films -- cut-throat nihilism intertwined with Catholic superstition to create a world where the guy who slits your throat is the same one that lies awake at night worrying that he's going to (literally) burn in hell. Perhaps you'd expect nothing less with Graham Greene writing the screenplay from his own novel, but the writing is great throughout -- from the terrified Fred's desperate attempts to score a protective date ("my, you work fast, don't you?") to Pinkie Brown's deranged malapropism for a suicide pact ("a suicide pax... that's Latin for peace, you know it?") -- the script is a non-stop collection of great dialog and inspired storytelling. The acting is electric from Richard Attenborough's teeth-gritting paranoia to Carol Marsh's sweet but dangerous naiveté.

If you're into noir and gangster movies this is one of the must-see films.

Arabesque
(1966)

London's Swinging
This isn't a great movie, but it's pretty fun to watch. It's basically a crazed version of "North by Northwest", down to the crop-duster sequence. The plot quit making sense to me halfway through (if not sooner), but I didn't care much by that point, as it was obviously not a movie that required a delicate understanding of the storyline in order to extract pleasure from what's good about it, which is 1) Sophia Loren is various tight and/or ripped dresses 2) Wile E. Coyote set-piece action sequences and 3) the fantastic opening title sequence. Everything else you can live with our without.

Charade (which I saw on a double bill with this) is a much better movie, in part because of better writing, but also because by '66, Arabesque is starting to show some of the cheesier artifacts of late 60's style (forced psychedelia, etc.). But Arabesque is fun for what it is: a campy, pulpy, slightly over-the-top spy action jamboree.

Two-Minute Warning
(1976)

Of its time
What's most interesting to me about Two-Minute Warning is that it's exactly the sort of middle-of-the-road Hollywood flick that they simply will not make anymore. It isn't in the least bit arty, it's not a great script, it doesn't require method acting of its actors, nor a Ph.D. in psychology to understand. What it is, is blunt, brutal, and matter-of-fact. It's almost completely untainted with sentimentality (just a touch here and there), and it isn't trying to orchestrate your feelings as if your emotions were a violin section. It's just telling a sort of ugly but gripping story, and goes about it a step at a time.

Today when you go to a movie that covers similar thematic territory, the script is almost always overwritten, and badly written. (Both, with each amplifying the other's ugliness: because scripts are so overwritten -- that is, because you so loudly hear the voice of the author over the voice of the characters -- you are all the more painfully aware of the mediocrity of that voice, and of its allegiance to bland corporate values instead of specific human ones). The studios have gotten storytelling down to such a maudlin formula that they will keep bringing new "writers" onto the project until every box on their list of heart-tugging, tear-welling, triumph-savoring emotional epiphanies is represented and over-represented in every script. The end result as a viewer is sort of the storytelling equivalent of watching a two-hour tape of, um, climax shots from porn -- you are so oversaturated with "excitement" that all you see is the ridiculous falsity of everything.

So, even though Two-Minute Warning is not a great movie, even though no-one would likely get nominated for an Academy Award for writing it, it is a movie worth seeing, because it demonstrates that you can tell a story without pretense, and that a solid story, told without pretense, is far more enjoyable to sit through than a grandiose one, told with pretensions that seem to emanate from a supernaturally limitless well somewhere beneath the Earth's crust in Burbank.

When I come grousing out of another horrible summer action movie, and the anti-intellectuals in the crowd sneer that "not everything has to be Bergman", I want to tell them, "no, but everything could at least be Two-Minute Warning -- is that setting the bar too high for you?" The film is entertaining, suspenseful, violent, disturbing, and it has some pretty good actors just playing rather ordinary cops that are fun to watch (John Cassavetes? Are you kidding me?). I sure wish they'd make more movies like this to fill out the schedule these days.

Slacker
(1990)

Eternal Weekend
Even though I've immensely enjoyed many of Richard Linklater's films (especially "Waking Life" and "Dazed and Confused"), I never had much desire to sit through Slacker. The title and the era made me anticipate this would be a lazily-crafted, self-indulgent, aimless exploration of the oh-so-forgettable ennui of 20-somethings.

Boy, was I wrong.

"Slacker" is actually a true "art film", a highly conceptualized storytelling experiment in the manner of mid-60's Godard. In fact, in many ways it seems patterned after Godard's "Weekend" -- a bold ambition for a young low-budget filmmaker if ever there was one -- with its long, fluid takes that seamlessly drift from one story to another with chance passings on Austin's sidewalks.

In many ways I found Slacker more interesting and more enjoyable than Godard's movie, though. Weekend ultimately boils down to Godard satirizing his society, while maintaining a dry, utterly unsentimental and unemotional attitude towards his characters. When you watch Weekend, there is always the sense that Godard is looking down his nose at his characters (however justifiably). Slacker has a more complicated relationship between Linklater and his subject. While there is undoubtedly a strongly satirical feel to many of the scenes (for example, the two apparently stoned guys debating the meaning of Saturday morning cartoons while they chain smoke in a bar), at the same time, the movie feels made from the inside. It's, maybe, a satirical self-portrait. In fact, since Linklater plays the first of the Slacker characters that we meet -- the cab fare spinning yarns about parallel universes -- it is in some manner quite literally a self-portrait.

All of that is a very academic way of saying what's viscerally obvious when watching Slacker - - it's funny and real and naturalistic at the same time that it is abstract, constructed and very obviously written.

I'm not sure what it all adds up to or if it's supposed to add up to anything. After all, this is the story of people who, with a couple of notable exceptions, can't seem to put their plans into action ("You're not on the list"), so it makes perfect sense that the movie in the end feels like it just wanders off a cliff instead of coming to an end. It would be a mistake to say that the movie captures a generation -- these are caricatures, without doubt -- but it does capture the flavor of the times as they rolled by on some particularly lazy afternoons.

Knight and Day
(2010)

A Tom Cruise movie.
Knight and Day is an enjoyable, entertaining farce of an action movie. It zips along from locale to locale, keeping you chuckling with its occasional good humor, if rarely laughing out loud or finding it particularly witty. At its best, some of the editing is quite expressive (especially when representing Cameron Diaz' flickering consciousness after she's been drugged), giving the film the feel of a movie of higher pedigree than you might otherwise expect from such a mid-summer diversion.

The thing is, you've seen it all before, and you've seen Tom Cruise do it all before, and in fact, as you are watching it, you begin to feel that you've seen Tom Cruise do it all before in every single movie you've ever seen him in. That ultimately Mission Impossible is every bit as much of a farce as Knight and Day, and that his characters in those "serious" action movies are not a bit more believable or interesting than the one presented here, in glorious two-dimensionality. You think, maybe they should pass out 2D glasses before you see a Tom Cruise movie, to make sure that nothing ever pokes out as too realistic and jarring. Because that's the kind of movies he's good at, and that's what we pay for when we go see one of them: we pay to be reassured that nothing will ever rise above the level of entertaining into the realm of the thoughtful or the disturbing.

Of course this isn't very fair. Tom Cruise has been in a number of interesting movies over the years. He was in Stanley Kubrick's last, strange effort. He had that crazy role in Magnolia, playing some sort of manic control-freak guru leading a self-help movement that exploited people's weak-mindedness. (Talk about a stretch!). But, being fair aside, I think we all know what I mean when I say, Tom Cruise just makes the same movie over and over again, and we pay the same ten, errr, thirteen dollars, over and over again, to feel the same weird kind of comfortable we feel seeing him be shallow, attractive, narcissistic, assertive, and completely inscrutable. That's just the way it is.

Predators
(2010)

Awful, awful
Predators is just an awful, awful movie. The quality of the writing, acting, cinematography and special effects are barely up to the level of a student film. It is astonishing to see an actor of Adrien Brody's quality embarrassing himself with such a weird, forced performance. I kept thinking, did he really speak like that on set, or did they have to go back and dub it in later? I hope they paid him a lot of money. (They must have paid it to somebody - it sure wasn't the writer.)

Topher Grace's performance as the doctor is so bad you wonder if the editors accidentally cut in the takes where he was just deadpanning lines for the audio mixer to set levels on the microphone. I felt especially bad watching Walton Goggins laboring to perform his luridly written death row inmate, because he's proved on the FX series "Justified" to be capable of so much nuance and complexity.

The overall quality of this movie is very similar to an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where most of the lights went out on set, but they decided to keep working to save money. I agree with some of the other reviewers that the IMDb rating of this movie of 7.6 is very fishy. I don't know if the studio is actually hiring college students to stay up all night casting big votes for their movie -- but if so, shouldn't that effort have gone into actually making the movie better in the first place, instead of into promoting the disaster of a film that they produced?

Justified
(2010)

good stuff
Justified started the season an entertaining but rather facile law enforcement drama. It was hurt by some over-the-top stereotypical characters, and moreso by the way-off-the-mark "Kentucky" landscape (which turned out to be a small city in Pennsylvania, in real life, then, later, Southern California).

As the first season has progressed, however, the show has gotten better and better, as both the writers and actors have found their voices, and the show manages to now be dark, strange, suspenseful, funny and, occasionally, extremely sexy. The season 1 finale is a wild Peckinpah bloodbath that will leave you gasping for a breath. I haven't really seen anything quite like it on television. The show takes some wild chances, and they keep hitting the bulls-eye.

I can't wait for season 2.

District 9
(2009)

Literally unwatchable
I had to leave the theatre after half an hour because the "Blair Witch Project" camera-work was so awful that I was literally about to vomit on the theatre floor. The funny thing, is the way the plot was developing, it would have seemed perfectly acceptable to do so.

The story itself piqued my interest and I am curious to know how the plot turned out. On the other hand, the allegorical politics of the movie were so heavy-handed and sophomoric that I don't think I would have enjoyed the movie even had the producer sprung for a tripod.

Mostly, I'm thankful that I didn't spring for popcorn on the way in. (Or, shrimp cocktail, for that matter.)

The Taking of Pelham 123
(2009)

A good, tense heist thriller
A surprisingly enjoyable and tense thriller. While it does have a good bit of the kind of silly excess that ruins most summer blockbuster movies anymore, those flaws are overshadowed by the tightly-wound script and a couple of good performances from Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Director Tony Scott seems to have spent a good bit of effort trying to channel the spirit of 1970's American movies, and often this pays dividends as the focus on grittiness over spectacular action sequences ups the suspense. It's interesting that as the movie approaches the end you can feel the director's 21st century comic-book instincts straining against the genre he's working in as the story becomes increasingly less believable and more "heroic."

Nevertheless I can recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a suspenseful action movie that doesn't beat you over the head with histrionics from beginning to end. Admittedly I've never seen the original, and I can easily imagine those who love it might be substantially less enthusiastic about this remake.

Pride & Prejudice
(2005)

Soapy modernism
While this film is in many ways technically well crafted, it is completely spoiled by the anachronistic attitudes of the characters. Throughout, the important characters behave as if they were modern Americans (and in Donald Sutherland's case, speaks like one), rather than citizens of the early 19th century, where the movie is set.

While I'm actually a big fan of some of the movies that re-imagine novels like Pride & Prejudice in a modern setting (Clueless, Bridget Jones' Diary, etc.), when the director decides to make a period picture that presumes to represent Jane Austen's novel as written, there has to be some minimal standard for adhering to the historical nature of the book. This movie fails (badly) to meet that minimal standard. In fact, the way the folks in this movie behave more like characters who wandered out of Beverly Hills 90210 strikes an offensive note. It suggests self-absorption: the modern audience isn't really interested in what it might have been like to live in Austen's day, but rather wants to be reassured that it was a simple mirror image of their own melodramatic, "emo" existence.

It rubs one the wrong way to think that people who will never read the Austen book will sit through the movie, and come away thinking they've in any way digested what Austen had to offer. It isn't merely a matter of style differences (though the style of speech and interaction often feels far more modern than historic). It's that the very relationships between the characters as written by Austen are strongly affected by their class standings and differences. It's impossible to read the book and not understand that Austen's primary task in the writing of it was to criticize and satirize the class underpinnings of her society. To turn such a book into a simple soap opera is sham.

The ironic thing is that Austen's book is much funnier and livelier than this movie. Pride and Prejudice as written has more in common with Monty Python dressing up as middle-class British ladies in order to make fun of (20th century) British society than it does with this maudlin romance.

Sixteen Candles
(1984)

watchable but not good
Sixteen Candles is a watchable, paint-by-numbers teen romance. It's mostly interesting for early glimpses of actors who would go on to do later, better work (especially John and Joan Cusack). The story is too over-the-top to resonate on an emotional level, but it isn't clever enough to get more than the occasional chuckle. It doesn't even do a particularly good job of capturing the mood of the era, though it's inevitable, of course, that some of that comes through.

Ultimately this film can't hold a candle to director John Hughes' next project, The Breakfast Club, which does a considerably better job capturing the exploits of mid-80's high schoolers without all the two-dimensional, misanthropic portraits of the older generations cluttering up the movie as they do here.

FM
(1978)

kick off your high heel sneakers
FM is kind of silly and broad... the characters are two-dimensional weirdos out of a TV sitcom, and the plot feels paint-by-numbers. Despite this, the movie is quite charming and for me, poignant, because it manages to capture something about the now-departed era when rock music and FM radio were a cultural force to be reckoned with. In a time when music listeners are far more likely to be isolated in their iPod headphones, it's somewhat painful to realize what has been lost in music in terms of the communal listening experience that a locally-run, idiosyncratic radio station provided. When the plot briefly passes through the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard --- now as lost to the ages as the library at Alexandria --- you are confronted with the fact that the entire culture of rock n' roll that many of us grew up with at the center of our lives -- radio, record stores, and arena concerts -- is essentially a thing of the past. Even though this isn't a great movie, it does a great job of taking you back in time to that era.

The soundtrack is pretty middle of the road, but it's good to hear songs that the years have ground into mush briefly re-contextualized into their natural habitat. I can't think of a better way to hear a lot of late 70's radio fodder ("Baby Come Back"; Billy Joel) than within the confines of this movie.

Earthstorm
(2006)

Scores don't come low enough for this film
This might truly be the worst movie I've ever seen. There's not a single aspect of the movie that is up to the minimal professional standards one expects from even the lowliest cable-TV show. The special effects look like the opening movie from a b-list 1990's computer game; the over-acting is straight from a high school performance of "Oklahoma!", and worst of all is the writing, which insults both our intelligence and the laws of physics at every turn.

Dumbest moment: Stephen Baldwin looks at a stone-cold unconscious James Gallanders and exclaims, "I think he might be unconscious!" Gee, you think?

How about the 2,000 mph fighter plane chasing a meteor down from behind, lining up a shot in his crosshairs like a World War II pilot, then releasing a 2,200 mph Sidewinder missile which runs down the hurtling meteor and annihilates it. Never mind that the *slowest* meteors travel 25,000 mph, while faster ones move at a speedy 160,000 mph. You might as well chase down the Space Shuttle on your bicycle.

Speaking of the Space Shuttle, what can one say about Baldwin wandering around (in earth gravity) in the payload bay while the pilot relives the arcade glory days of Zaxxon in a moon trench, dodging a hailstorm of Volkswagen-sized floating boulders with an agility that would put Baron von Richtofen to shame?

One could go on, and I see many others have. It saddens me that someone was paid to write this imbecilic crap, knowing that somewhere out there are willing writers who actually made it through eighth grade, and thus understand the basic laws of science and nature, and furthermore understand that abiding by these laws is why it is called "science fiction", rather than "random spectacular cosmic disaster fiction."

Robots
(2005)

wind-up toys
Robots is an incessantly banal tone poem of unmodulated hyperactivity. Set in a sci-fi milieu ripe for a satirical skewering of our own political, economic, and media culture, the filmmakers instead deliver a witless rendition of the Horatio Alger story devoid of either laughter or pathos. While it would be easy to accuse the studio of purposefully sanitizing the movie in order to make it go down better with the Whoppers with which it is being cross-promoted, it's far more likely that no one in a position of authority on this project possessed the basic abstract thinking skills necessary to propel the narrative into the sphere of literature.

Apart from its mind-numbing monotony, the movie is primarily distinguished by its narcissism, whereby our Hollywood filmmakers posit that in the world of robots, the greatest robot of all is...a television star. That it never occurs to Robots' creators that men who are machines might not need televisions (either because they *are* televisions, or because they are, rather, entertained by houseplants in the same way that we are entertained by machines) is illustrative of the incredibly lazy writing at the heart of this movie.

The animation itself is proficient and soulless. While the screen is always a hubbub of jittery activity, this is primarily to mask the fact that there is precious little dramatic *action* taking place. Instead what we have is a series of static dialog scenes decorated around the edges of the frame with wind-up contraptions to create the illusion that something is actually happening.

Robin Williams delivers a garish, ego-maniacal, scenery-chewing performance as the voice of "Fender" that challenges the notion that an animated film is created by the artists who draw it (on computer or otherwise). Perhaps rather than an "animated" film, Robots should simply be called a "rendered" one.

Scarface
(1983)

The Rocky Horror Gangster Show
I went into Scarface expecting a searing gangster drama to stand up next to classics like Goodfellas, The Godfather, and Carlito's Way. Instead the movie is an over-the-top, operatic melodrama that is only shy a bunch of costumed hecklers to make it into the next Rocky Horror Picture Show. I found the disclaimer at the end -- that not *all* Cuban-Americans were like those depicted in the movie -- to be perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the whole presentation, as much so as if one alerted the audience after Godzilla that not *all* lizards were bent on the destruction of major Japanese cities. In other words - no kidding!

From a stylistic perspective the movie is badly dated, with the Giorgio Moroder score occupying a particularly glaring spot in the finished film as being an unfortunate product of a not-very-lamented bygone era -- a musical Land of the Lost awash in obsolete synthesizers and peculiarly unfunky rhythms. While we can't entirely blame the film for being made at a nadir of American culture, which 1983 undoubtedly was in some respects, the bottom line is that Miami Vice did a better job of integrating the same cultural artifacts into some fun-to-watch television, and that isn't really saying all that much.

Despite these criticisms, the movie is not unenjoyable to sit through. For me, in its guileless employment of mid-80's cultural flotsam, it became a sort of time machine to that era. At first you are sitting there cringing at what you are seeing, but then you remember: people dug this movie when it was new, and in believing that you are forced to take a trip back to a time when the bell-like sounds of DX7 synthesizers and blow-dried hair were actually *cool*. You remember that movies are made to be watched immediately, and anything we can get out of them 20 years down the road is more of an unintended consequence of conducting anthropology via the art-house cinema.

And there's still a few moments in the film which just plain work: "You wanna job?" "Say hello to my little friend..." and others. In moments like these you sense the seeds of the Sopranos and other gangster movies with a extra large helping of attitude.

In the end, though, Scarface is a campy journey into a dead-end aesthetic of polyester and pop-up headlights. It isn't so much documenting excess as it is an example of excess itself. I wouldn't be surprised in 20 years to go see it as a midnight movie and find a bunch of teenagers hurling toilet paper and insults at the screen in gleeful fits of postmodern revelry.

Closer
(2004)

a digestive
Closer may not be the worst movie ever made. I haven't seen every movie ever made, so I'm not in any position to make that evaluation. I can simply say it is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It is dull, repetitive, unbelievable, pretentious, sophomoric, and vulgar. Its leaden pace induces narcolepsy even as it desperately tries to titillate with the language of fornication. The "adults" in this movie are like the incarnation of the fantasies of a psychologically troubled 15-year old boy: both obsessed by and disgusted with their own sexuality. In one interminably long, dull scene, Jude Law -- impersonating a woman -- has cyber-sex with loutish doctor Clive Owen. The embarrassing part is that Director Mike Nicholas is so out of it that he thinks there is something inherently novel about this all-too-common internet phenomenon and so lets the stale scene play out at a laborious pace somewhere between cosmological entropy and stop-motion-photography. We're left to watch these blandly pornographic proceedings with all the enthusiasm of a half- anesthetized dental patient awaiting the drill.

About halfway through this movie a mischievous thought occurred to me: perhaps something more interesting was going on elsewhere on the premises. So I left my seat, retired to the men's room, and, at great leisure, relieved myself of my previously delicious dinner. (Thankfully I saw the movie in an establishment with immaculately well-maintained restrooms.) I can say with all honesty it was the most enjoyable 15 minutes of the entire movie-going experience.

Criminal
(2004)

amateur hour
Criminal is a clumsy, amateurish indie film working over the heist/con-artist genre without anything new to bring to the table. John C. Reilly is miscast as the grifter at the center of the movie. The script presumes that we will slowly grow to detest him over the course of the film, but Reilly's sad-sack persona makes him too sympathetic to play the part. At the same time he utterly lacks the devilish charisma that would make the movie fun to watch. The result feels like a long road trip in the middle of winter with an awkward relative who has bad breath.

Diego Luna's performance as Rodrigo is one of the few bright spots in the movie, but his character ultimately is just a stereotype of Mexican-American immigrants in Los Angeles. When the film posits that, although living in LA, he's never been to Westwood or Beverly Hills, you can only groan.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is repulsive as Reilly's sister. Whether this was intentional or another case of miscasting is in doubt.

Finally, without giving anything away, the ending of the movie is just plain dumb. Of all the delectable possibilities the filmmakers chose the most obvious, simplistic and heavy-handed conclusion available.

All in all a forgettable, unsatisfying movie.

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