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Children of Men

Clever, clever, clever
I must laugh when I read critics saying things about this film like "powerful, but doesn't explain enough," or raising objections like "unfortunately, we never find out what caused the infertility in the first place" or "how a single baby is going to change anything is never made clear." Ha! Despite the inevitable appearance of the term *dystopian* in their reviews, these writers seem unaware that what they've seen is a satire – and satire, whether it's funny or whether it's sad, is always a kind of fantasy, and needn't play by the same rules as an artwork that pretends to exist in the real world. (I don't understand why these critics wanted the movie to explain itself more anyway, since the early scenes where it *does* do a lot of explaining are probably its worst.) In fact, probably the film this most resembles is another famous film satire, "Brazil," right down to its possibly-government-sponsored terrorism campaign and WWII-type propaganda. ("Suspicious? Report it" is right out of the earlier film, and the hilariously plausible "The world collapses . . . *only Britain soldiers on*" should have been.) On paper, the plot is just as classically comic, with a naïve, reluctant hero (he's even a civil servant!), recurring characters who pop up in unexpected places, and hairsbreadth, coincidence-based escapes.

But the key difference is that where Terry Gilliam inflated his movie with a cartoonish artifice, here director Alfonso Cuarón employs a punishing, sometimes shocking realism. The result is a film that, despite its (mostly visual) wit, feels so immediate, so intense, and so horrifying that you forget you're watching a comedy. But this isn't a criticism – it's exactly that irony that makes the film seem so fresh. We usually associate irony with things which make light of very serious subjects; "Dr. Strangelove" works by taking something grave and terrifying and making it ludicrous. Cuarón is even cleverer – he takes something ludicrous, a sci-fi chase caper, and makes it grave and terrifying. It's even moving – you feel like you've been through "Schindler's List" at the end of it. His technique is masterful . . . his style, and the artistry of his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, suggest documentary without ever fully giving over to it – apart from a somber opening theme by John Tavener, there is no original music, and the production team puts the viewer into the film at the best/worst of times, as in the escape from the Fishes' compound, the raid on Jasper's house, the final hellish descent into the Bexhill ghetto, and, especially, in the harrowing attack on Luke's van. This scene, filmed from inside the vehicle and executed without any cuts (that I noticed), is one of the most gut-wrenchingly horrifying movie moments I can remember. (But even this comes with a Hitchcockian wink, as the nominal female lead gets snuffed out a quarter way into the film, without so much as a final speech.)

But while the film uses the realistic to transform the absurd, it also incorporates a third, even more surprising element: a poetry that gives this world a unique haunted quality. London makes a great ruined city; it's hard to imagine a New World metropolis having the same impact, as modern European cities already carry with them such a sense of lost and ancient civilization. In its use of architecture (actually, not only in that), the film sometimes resembles the latter part of "Full Metal Jacket," only this time the ruined British buildings are actually supposed to *be* ruined British buildings. The wet, green English countryside is used as a contrast to the urban horrors (though any tranquility it suggests proves false); most important of all is the amazing placement of animals – they're everywhere in the film – which are used in various ways. They give us welcome reminders of human kindness (the many beloved pets) and irresponsibility (the dead animals from farms that have become unmaintainable or unnecessary). Most of all, they are reminders of hope – or at any rate of survival, as they appear in abandoned schools and buildings under siege. (And they, too, are reminiscent of Gilliam; remember the zoo animals that flourish in the plague-emptied Philadelphia of "Twelve Monkeys.")

In a world and directorial conception this size, the characters and the performances seem appropriately small. But they're all good. Claire-Hope Ashitey has an appropriate radiance, without seeming like too magical an earth mother (Kee's joke about immaculate conception is a great comment on our expectations). Clive Owen resists any temptation to be movie-heroic, and as a result Theo comes across as surprisingly, authentically brave, as when he plunges into the tank-surrounded building in the climactic battle scene. (Compare this character with Tom Cruise's in "War of the Worlds" and you'll realize what a failure that casting choice was.) Michael Caine gives a witty and ultimately very moving performance; his Jasper gets a brave death, too, although it's one of the moments where Cuarón edges perilously close to sadism. Pam Ferris brings real dignity to her faithful old nurse character (another familiar comic type), and Charlie Hunnam and Peter Mullan find the perfect scary/funny balance (you want to cheer when they get killed).

But again, it's all Cuarón's show, and "Children of Men" is really an amazing directorial achievement. There are movies that make you want to live inside them, and there are movies that make you want to live inside the brains of their creators. "Children of Men" is neither, but it gets under your skin as well as any movie in my recent memory; at least for a little while, it changed the way I looked at my own reality – I was looking for its world in the real one. "Don't you expect to hear gunshots?" I said to a friend as we walked up the sidewalk after the movie. I think he thought I was crazy. 10 out of 10.

The Dark Crystal

Brilliant, woefully under-appreciated masterpiece. Even hardcore Henson fans seem to prefer the chaotic, tone-deaf disaster "Labyrinth" to this, and I've never understood why. "The Dark Crystal" would seem to be the perfect fantasy film – it's often criticized for being inaccessible and remote from humanity (many writers seem simply baffled by it), but to me, the otherworldiness, so carefully wrought and sustained (the film never breaks character, even in its Muppetier moments), is a huge part of the appeal. Henson and his production team have created a unique, self-contained, utterly believable new world, and most surprisingly they have the artistic backbone to take it seriously. (Considering that much of today's entertainment for children consists of sitcom stars playing animated versions of themselves, this is very important.) The distinct subcultures are painted in broad strokes – though not a work of science fiction, the film shares a perhaps simplistic sensibility with many sci-fi works of the time, sending up the western model of life and praising the eastern – but they have to be, considering how much territory it sets out to cover in just 93 minutes. It's amazing how fully the various races come to life before our eyes, from the quasi-Buddhist Mystics, who are not characterized individually (which may be the point), but who are instead defined by marvelous touches like the booming nine-tone chord they sing, to the Podlings, with their Celtic/medieval folk culture like something out of a Brueghel painting. Most detailed of all, of course, are the Skeksis, conceived to satirize the worst excesses of western civilization, with individual characters lovingly (or maybe hatefully) realized as incarnations of politics, war, science, organized religion, and even fashion, with a couple of Deadly Sins thrown in for good measure. (Some question whether a handful of Skeksis in a board room could actually lay waste to an entire planet, but, again, that's probably the point.) In the midst of this explosion of creativity, the Gelflings are often criticized as bland and lifeless; it's a legitimate complaint, but it should be remembered that we are meant to see this fantastic world through their eyes, and so their blankness actually helps bring the other races into clearer focus. All this arty symbolism wouldn't amount to much, of course, if "The Dark Crystal" didn't also work aesthetically, and while the cinematic technique is actually surprisingly conservative, happily the film is well plotted and paced (for a film that lingers so much on the details of a fantasy world, there are few scenes that don't move the story along), often quite scary (the Garthim, organic tanks that can come into your house, are a terrifying concept), at times hilariously odd (the eye! my god, the eye!), extremely clever in its use of sound (from the aforementioned Mystic singing, to the Chamberlain's whining and shrieking, to the telltale clicking of the Garthim), and as an example of how to capture puppets believably on film, completely unparalleled. Ultimately, it may be too challenging in some ways to ever find more than a narrow cult following (in the U.S., anyway – apparently the French and Japanese ate it up), which is too bad, and it's even sadder that its commercial failure sent Henson into a deep depression from which he never fully recovered. It's a magnificently original film; there should be more like it. 10 out of 10.

Match Point

Odd, clever film
Odd, clever film, if a cold one. At first, it almost numbs the viewer with its frankly clichéd scenario of marriage for money and cheap adultery. This is stuff of melodrama – the production's emphasis on opera is no coincidence – and yet, surprisingly, Woody Allen chooses not to emphasize the emotional aspects of his story, which might seem the best, or at least the most usual, way to make material like this work. Instead, he presents us with characters who aren't really even characterized – despite the over-the-top setting (it's amusing that critics called this a departure for Allen; it's true that here we get the Stately Homes of England instead of the Upper East Side, but it's still his same upper-class fantasy world), they're simply left to be dull, ordinary people, from naïve Chloe and her family to Nola, who, despite the magnetic effect she has on the men of the film, isn't really anything more than a typical stupid young American abroad, first trying to live a starving artist life (and succeeding too well for her liking) and then turning into a panicky, dependent child when she learns she's pregnant. Into this mix of un-characters comes Chris, a person so blank I had trouble remembering his name, about whom we learn nearly nothing over the course of the film. He's a foreigner who comes from humble beginnings (the others very Englishly nickname him "Irish," despite his successful downplaying of his accent) and yet we learn nothing of his background beyond his reasons for leaving pro tennis. It's (somewhat unbelievably) suggested that Chris is a great reader, but, like many real people, for the greater part of this story he is neither a thinker nor an actor. He accepts the affections of Chloe (and the privileges associated with them) more out of politeness than anything else, even to the point of marrying her; when Nola enters into the picture he acts, but still doesn't think. By the time he decides to murder his now-inconvenient paramour in an incredibly careless way (with a shotgun! in her flat!), we're strangely absorbed that such action could come from such a ho-hum character in such a ho-hum plot, and then shocked when he actually goes through with the killing, wondering how this unthinking, unclever, almost amoebalike character possibly thinks he can get away with it. Though similarly prettyboyish, Chris is neither a blood-lusting overachiever like Patrick Bateman or an I-just-wanna-be-loved sociopath like Tom Ripley – he hasn't the calculating ambitions (or the charm) of either, and it's hardly plausible that he could stumble out of his unpleasant situation as thoughtlessly as he stumbled into it. But stumble out of it he does – Allen's misanthropy extends to the entire world of this film, and just as Chris's frankly doltish wife is easily distracted from her husband's odd behavior, so too is the one police detective who manages to put the obvious clues together easily talked out of his theory by a chipper subordinate. Though not marketed as a comedy, "Match Point" offers a coldly comic version of the world, and viewed in this light the film becomes almost paradoxically entertaining. Allen almost ruins it at the end with a twee bit of existential artifice that seems juvenile in the context of the adult tone to that point, but perhaps the oddest thing about "Match Point" is how watchable a mix of not- pleasing-in-themselves elements it is. It's probably too clever for its own good by half, but it contains enough incongruity to surprise just about any viewer. 8.5 out of 10.

The Skeleton Key

A missed opportunity

One's reaction to 'The Skeleton Key' is invariably something of a compromise. The movie is neither aggressively stupid nor particularly intelligent, and it lumbers along watchably without making us squirm too much, either in the bad way or the good. Most reviewers seems to have either written it off as 'typical,' which it certainly is not, or celebrated it as brilliant, which may be even less appropriate.

The latter argument seems to come entirely from the script's clever twist ending, which is certainly surprising and original. Unfortunately, the twist, while it does work overall, doesn't feel as satisfying as the very best surprise endings. A good twist should give the impression that a puzzle has suddenly been assembled out of things the viewer didn't even realize *were* puzzle pieces to begin with. 'The Skeleton Key,' on the other hand, doesn't as much bring everything together as it suddenly brings in an unexpected but plausible explanation for everything – not quite the same thing. In the audience, we respond by saying 'Ooh, that's clever,' which is fine – but ideally a surprise ending should make us jump out of our seats and scream 'Holy sh*t, all those strange random elements suddenly make sense now!' In fact, 'The Skeleton Key' is sort of the opposite of typical twist movies, where so often the twist doesn't live up to the setup. This is a movie where the setup doesn't live up to the twist, and it's frustrating that director Ian Softley seems to miss some very good opportunities to hint at the oncoming shock. (For instance, Violet pointedly does *not* fly into a seemingly-irrational-but-actually-appropriately-jealous rage when she catches Luke flirting with Caroline – why not? Wouldn't that have been suitably baffling at the time, but have paid off beautifully when we realize that she is actually the younger man's *wife*?)

This is not to say that 'The Skeleton Key' is unwatchable, and, indeed, in many ways it's considerably less annoying than most other horror films. It's well acted, un-self-consciously scripted, and tastefully directed. (The direction actually makes us forget how much of an archaic cliché the Louisiana Gothic setting is.) But it really contains no genuine scares whatsoever, and ultimately its failure to build up to its good climax makes it seem a missed opportunity, even if it's a consistently watchable one. Recommended for horror fans, but not too enthusiastically. 6.5 out of 10.

Marathon Man

So-so schlock in serious seventies dress
Director John Schlesinger uses every trick in the book to save 'Marathon Man,' but while he succeeds at bringing a certain gritty elegance, so typical of the decade, to the film, he can't quite conceal (the overrated) William Goldman's contrived and fantastical script. The film may look like classic seventies 'neo-noir,' but it's still just a silly, coincidence-based comic strip, plunking Dustin Hoffman's Joe Nobody down into his brother's Bondworld of 'Spy vs. Spy' chases and lost Nazi loot. To be fair, Schlesinger also manages the many suspense set pieces extremely well (although the infamous 'Is it safe?' scene might surprise some by how *un*-explicit it is).

As for the acting, it's a classic mixed bag. Laurence Olivier comes off best, his Szell being of course authentically sinister, but also believably elderly, even frail. (The moment when he tells Roy Scheider that he's too old and too smart to fight him captures his character beautifully.) Dustin Hoffman works physically in the part – he's certainly plausible as a marathon runner – but the character is so poorly defined by Goldman's screenplay that the actor is forced into bombastic hamminess as the film moves along. Roy Scheider is a good actor, but he's badly miscast as the stereotypically witty and worldly secret agent, and Marthe Keller is such a mush-mouth that it's no surprise she didn't go on to any significant English-language success.

In the end, 'Marathon Man' is certainly worth a watch for hardcore fans of thrillers; more casual viewers won't be missing much. 6.5 out of 10.


A white man's pity party, but watchable enough
Alexander Payne began an exploration of White Male Angst in "Election" and continued it in "About Schmidt," and now it seems "Sideways" is the third movement of his variations on this particular theme. It's somewhat ironic that this film has found such a following among women, since it's a Boy Movie from beginning to end – the female characters are purely functional, serving only to bring the agonies and ecstasies of the two male principals into sharper relief. In this respect (and others), the film is like an ostensibly more mature, but ultimately inferior brother to "Election," which had its share of WMA (in the form of the very tortured life of Matthew Broderick's Mr. M), but which was able to bring in several other rich characters to complicate and deepen its focus. "Sideways," on the other hand, is pure, distilled midlife-crisis stuff, and requires a lot of suspension of disbelief too (we're supposed to believe Miles and Jack have remained close enough friends to take a trip like this? we're supposed to believe somebody like Maya would go for Miles in the first place?). Add to that Payne's surprising hesitance to satirize Miles and Maya's pretentious wine-bore ramblings, and the film's embarrassingly pat ending, and it's kind of a surprise that it's watchable at all – but it is, largely on account of the strong performances from the two leads. Paul Giamatti is able to breathe life into any role he takes, and it's his take on this part that wins our sympathy (or partial sympathy, anyway) for this believably flawed character, who could so easily have been obnoxious. Thomas Hayden Church's performance has more of the sitcomic about it, but he still is quite convincing (and very Californian) in the part, and keeps Jack from becoming entirely unappealing. As for Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, there's nothing especially good or bad about their performances, but that's more a problem of writing than one of acting. In the end, I doubt that it would stand up favorably to even one repeat viewing, but Giamatti and Church make it worth the one. 7 out of 10.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Pleasant surprise
"The Muppet Christmas Carol" – even the *name* fills one with trepidation. After all, how else can we approach the first large-scale Muppet project since the death of Jim Henson (and Richard Hunt), especially when it came so close on the heels of drastically increased commercialization of the franchise, symbolized, if not outright created, by the Muppets' sale to Disney?

That's why the film turns out to be such a pleasant, and even occasionally delightful, surprise. It's not perfect, by any means, and I guess I might as well start with the problems first. There's a *lot* of padding, including some rather cruddy songs for the Cratchits. Frank Oz, in his few scenes, seems to be phoning it in, and his Piggy voice has become so strained that's it's painful to listen to. And Steve Whitmire, while he performs an honorable, even admirable impression, can never approach Jim Henson's interpretation of Kermit for anyone who knew it first.

And yet, there's a kind of magic that creeps in and reminds us many times of the early "Muppet Show" days and their wonderful insanity. Throwaway gags like "Please sir – I want some cheese" and the running commentary of Gonzo and Rizzo give the film that unmistakably Muppety flavor.

And not only is the movie good Muppets, it's good *Dickens*, which is perhaps more surprising. In fact, in some ways it's hard to imagine a better musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" – it's certainly better than either of the other two musical Scrooges that first come to mind. To choose a random point of overlap, where Albert Finney and Kelsey (ugh) Grammar make their entrances hobbling along and singing their crabby wee hearts out, Michael Caine stalks silently in while the *chorus* comments on him. Like Bill Sikes in Carol Reed's "Oliver!," this pre-transformation Scrooge doesn't have the time or the patience for *singing*, as of course he shouldn't. Paul Williams's songs themselves vary in quality (and Caine, while in most respects an above-average Scrooge, is no singer), but the opening chorus and Scrooge's buoyant "revelation" number are terrifically tuneful, and wonderfully orchestrated with a brassy, classically Christmas-y texture. Having chains physically *drag* Marley (or rather "the Marleys") back into the netherworld would be a marvelous idea in a "straight" adaptation, and having the elderly Scrooge join in a sad duet with his decades-lost love is genuinely moving. The Muppet effects for the ghosts, while simple, are extremely effective, and very true to Henson's vision of elegant, beautiful, and frequently spooky puppet artistry.

In the end, it may not be a perfect film, but it's more than worth a look both for Muppet fans and casual viewers. And of course kids of all ages will love it. 7.5 out of 10.


Impossible to recommend, but I liked it
I'm beginning to laugh at the distinctions people draw between "good" and "bad" Dario Argento films. They all seem to have some common technical elements: clever camera-work, grotesque but deliberately unrealistic violence, weird music, incomprehensible plots, "impressionistic" titles, and poor acting. None of them work perfectly, even for fans of this style. The variations between the movies, then, come from the genre accidentals – "Profondo Rosso" is a detective thriller, "Suspiria" an occult conspiracy tale, etc.; Argento seems to come along and apply his own unique vision of the giallo onto whatever horror style is fashionable at the time. It's his uniqueness, rather than his ability to produce great films, that has assured his place in the canon.

So, then, "Trauma" turns out to be exactly what we would expect from an early nineties Dario Argento film. Camera-work? Check – even in this late period, Argento's eye and technique are strange and impressive. Violence? Double check – although what the actual purpose of that Decapitron device is supposed to be, I can't imagine. Weird music? Check – orchestral rather than Goblin this time, but still louder and a little more engaged than we would expect. Odd plot, check, arbitrary title, check, bad acting, check – Asia Argento actually manages to make Aura a likable character, but you can't deny that she garbles her lines and seems mostly amateurish throughout. (And she's hardly alone in those respects.)

The slasher subgenre had died out a bit by this point, but no better reason for Argento to try to freshen it up a bit with his unique stamp. The story's quite watchable and fun, and occasionally funny too - more in the vein of "Phenomena" than the early stuff. It's frequently ridiculous, of course, but show me a movie of his that isn't. And while there's a sex element to the film, it has a surprisingly innocent quality, perhaps because Argento was directing his own daughter in the lead. (I'm sure Freud would have a field day with it, though.)

In the end, it's hard to strongly recommend it to anyone – diehards are as likely to hate it as love it, and casual viewers are going to find his style absurd. So I'll give it a 6.5, with the simple comment that I would watch it again.

Runaway Train

Very watchable, despite some flaws
"Runaway Train" is hardly a perfect film – as others have mentioned, there are plenty of things here that feel tacked on, implausible, or even ridiculous (the Captain Ahab of a villain risking his own life to destroy his enemy, the silly riot scenes in the prison, the over-the-top speechifying and florid epigraph at the end credits, etc., etc.). But surprisingly, we find ourselves left with an impression of overall integrity and intelligent artistry – quite the feat, considering the number of melodramatic or otherwise un-subtle elements in the mix. In particular, Jon Voight's hamminess gets to be a bit much, but Eric Roberts's twitchiness for once creates a character who seems vulnerable and likable (if still occasionally obnoxious). And Rebecca De Mornay is quite surprising, and shows herself to be a real actress despite the vamp roles in which she most often finds herself typecast. The pacing and the rhythm of the dialogue is somewhat odd, but rather than irritating or alienating us, it seems to ground the film in its own unique textural world. At its best, "Runaway Train" reminded me of "Night of the Living Dead" or another great people-trapped-in-a-little-room suspense film, and it's worth the effort for most viewers. 7.5 out of 10.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Pretentious, overrated bore
Pretentious, overrated bore. Charlie Kaufman's screenplay seems to be trying to get at the way memory colors and shapes (sometimes inaccurately) our waking experiences and perceptions. But rather than developing that idea into anything of substance, Kaufman is content simply to hang an anchor around his neck and throw himself down a painfully repetitive, seemingly bottomless spiral of scenes in which Kate Winslet disappears from Jim Carrey's consciousness. The first time this happens, there's a fun, scary, "Twilight Zone"-y effect, but then it happens again, and then it happens again, and then guess what happens next, and then just when you think something new is finally going to happen, Kaufman follows it up with a big et cetera, et cetera.

It doesn't help much that he hasn't made his two principal characters particularly likable or believable as a couple – the relationship we're shown is all high and lows, without any of the "middles" that comprise 90% of human relationships in the real world (as opposed to the sort of graduate-student meta-universe Kaufman prefers to explore in his films). Like Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love," Jim Carrey for the most part tones it down, and like Emily Watson in that same film, Kate Winslet is a very good actress, but neither one is ever able to turn these characters into real people we feel we know well. (This is particularly laughable with Carrey, since most of the movie takes place inside Joel's head!) As for the other characters, they're uniformly unpleasant, even repulsive (the subplot surrounding Tom Wilkinson and Kirsten Dunst is particularly ugly), and they might have fit in perfectly with an aggressively satirical approach that this film entirely lacks.

As for Michel Gondry's direction, it's sort of generically creative with over-heavy indie seasoning; it occasionally reminded me of smaller, better movies like "Dream with the Fishes," and there were times when I wondered whether I would have been easier on it if it was some little unknown thing coming out of left field, instead of a Major Indie Happening with so many big names attached to it. It really does sink under the weight of the collective star power, but I can't help thinking that the repetitiousness would have made it boring no matter what. It's not quite as empty and useless as Christopher Nolan's "Memento," perhaps, but it tries hard. 4 out of 10.

Harold and Maude

Funny, moving, and even still a little shocking
I hadn't seen this movie in many years, and I didn't remember being terribly impressed by it the first time. I think I might have been too young. "Harold and Maude" now turns out to be a delightful surprise, often very funny, genuinely moving in its climax, and even still a little shocking (quite a feat in this jaded age). Yes, its basic message it on the simplistic side, and the twist at the end hinges on one of the title duo (I won't say who) behaving in a very out-of-character way, seemingly just so we get a conclusion in which everybody learns something. But along the way are many moments of wit and great charm, with the performances of Ruth Gordon and Bud Court bubbling over to get us to believe this improbable storyline. The supporting performances are rich too, especially those of Vivian Pickles as Harold's pretentious mother (her French is hysterical) and the always priestly Eric Christmas, whose speech near the end might be the movie's single funniest moment. Hal Ashby's direction is simple and graceful, with some beautifully composed and memorable shots, especially those in which he highlights the conformity of the cemeteries that Maude and Harold frequent. In the end, several of the film's individual moments stay with us, and it's hard to look back on Ruth Gordon singing and dancing to the player piano without smiling about it.

It's also hard to believe that mainstream studios ever produced films like these at all – we're not likely to see another "Harold and Maude" from them anytime soon. Highly recommended. 9.5 out of 10.

Mang jing

Great concept, but doesn't amount to much
I knew literally nothing about this film going into it, and I found its opening sequence – with the gritty cinematography, the squalid, almost alien setting, the inky darkness of the mine, and the sudden shock of violence – to be quite engaging and sinister, even frightening. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the film was to be none of those things. "Mang jing" might have made a great satiric or absurdist horror film – its concept is fascinating and macabre – but Yang Li's treatment of the idea is surprisingly bland. Oh, it limps forward with subtlety and reasonably good taste, but in the end it's barely memorable for any specific element. Even its politics, which the promotional text (oddly) suggests is to be such a huge factor in the overall mix, turns out to be rather tame and unremarkable. Disappointing, really. 5.5 out of 10.

Pete's Dragon

It's a Brazzle-Dazzle Disaster
The 1970s saw a great many quality films get made, but they were not good years for Walt Disney Studios. "The Aristocats" and "Robin Hood" are familiar critical whipping boys, but perhaps the greatest flowering culmination of Disney's nouveau wretchedness is a movie that's only half-animated: 1977's "Pete's Dragon."

It's marvelously inept entertainment – one of the biggest and worst musicals you'll ever see. Sean Marshall's vocal performance is among the most limply sung and out-of-tune I've ever heard, the choreography and camera-work beats Robert Altman to the "Anti-Musical" by a good three years, and the songs can only be called models of awfulness. (The fact that they're also terribly hummable only aggravates the pain they cause - they're as catchy as smallpox.)

Most of the adult actors seem to think they're competing in some kind of ham Olympics, with Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, and the actress playing the schoolteacher all reaching unbelievable heights of mugging, veritably tripping over themselves for the gold. In terms of artistic construction, the concept is frankly absurd, and the narrative structure is as lumpy as a garden planted with rocks (we've long since forgotten the Gogans by the time they arrive, etc.). The animation is unconvincing, the drinking scenes unfathomable from a modern perspective, and the 128-minute running time is simply unforgivable.

The movie is truly hilarious, but even I've never been able to watch it all the way through. Yes, it's *that* long. So better break it up into fifteen-minute segments, punctuated by some extremely heavy drinking of your own. 2 out of 10.

Everybody! And it's money, money, money by the – money, money, money by the – money, money, money by the – money, money, money by the . . .

Super Size Me

Small fry
Michael Moore shouldn't feel too bad if "Super Size Me" wins the Oscar for best documentary, since it's basically a Michael Moore film anyway. Morgan Spurlock has a breezy, likable screen presence, and he keeps his film entertaining and well-paced, but in terms of tone, style and technique he's nothing more than MM 2. And even Moore, for all his excesses, has a thread of genuine righteous indignation that runs through his work – there's always an angry populism at the root of his attacks. Spurlock, on the other hand, seems to have undertaken this project more for sh*ts and giggles than anything else, although he certainly bashes McDonald's enough, which always goes over well with the kinds of people who watch documentaries. But that brings us to another problem – is any of this all that shocking? The film's content effectively boils down one simple statement: fast food is bad for you. That's hardly a verdict that's going to make headlines, although as I said, the movie's watchable enough, and I suppose it will make people feel better about themselves as they laugh at the corporate behemoth and its stupid customers and pat themselves on their own fat backs. But the film is ultimately not much of an achievement –a pretty small fry in the larger cinematic picture. 6.5 out of 10.

The Lion King

Ambitious, but deeply flawed
At the time, it seemed like an almost ominously good idea: an animated Disney film that was to plumb new depths of darkness and emotion. Critics have identified everything from "Bambi" to "Hamlet" to the Passion story as source material, and while some of those parallels might be more forced than others, some certainly have the ring of truth ("Hamlet" in particular), and it's obvious that Disney was attempting to stretch here, with an animated feature more adult and literate than the three consecutive comic operas it had produced before it.

The movie made a bundle of money, of course, but somebody at Disney must have found something very wrong with it, as they never tried to duplicate the "Lion King" model again. (In fact, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" can be viewed as its exact opposite – a film that tries to turn a dark, ambitious, literary work into a junk TV cartoon.) In terms of musical style, too, the subsequent diminishing-returns animated films from Disney mainly reverted to the Ashman/Menken mock-Broadway formula, instead of imitating this pop-rock precedent.

So, "The Lion King" is ambitious. But is it successful? As Mufasa and Scar would certainly agree, these things do not always go hand in hand. And despite its conceptual daring, "The Lion King" must be judged at best an artistic compromise, and at worst an all-out failure. The design, of course, is spectacular, and the first sequence stands not only with other animated films but with all movie musicals as one of the most memorable opening numbers of all time.

But it isn't long before things start to go wrong. Elton John's songs are tuneful enough, but Tim Rice's lyrics are surprisingly witless, suffering from vague language and clumsy imagery ("Yes, our teeth and ambitions are bared" – bared ambitions?). It's surprising how much the Menken/Ashman team is missed – "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" tried hard to be "Under the Sea" on the savanna, but Ashman's witty patter, almost more like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan than Broadway, is sorely lacking. (Ashman might actually have been the magic ingredient in the Disney recipe – they haven't made a decent non-Pixar animated feature since he died.)

Jeremy Irons, as Scar, essentially repeats Jonathan Freeman's campy Jafar from "Aladdin," if anything achieving the remarkable feat of making this character even more mincing ("I must practice my curtsy," he sniffs when Mufasa reminds him of the rules of succession). And much of the adult appeal is squelched by the insertion of the most gratingly unfunny comic-relief characters into the mix. I find it nearly inconceivable that Disney should eventually have chosen to remake the film from the point of view of its worst characters.

Furthermore, over the decades Disney has been accused of racism and sexism in its cartoons, both rightly and wrongly – but it's hard to deny that both are genuinely present here. After all, why shouldn't the hyena caste (socially inferior only because of their species) have a place at the table? (The use of Nazi imagery to depict them is more than a little ridiculous, given the lions are obviously the "Master Race" in the world of the film.) And as for sexism, why do the lionesses need a male to come back and rescue them from an effete wimp like Scar at all?

So in the end, the design remains beautiful, and certainly not everyone will have the same problems with the irritating elements I've discussed. Plus, I suppose some points have to be given for ambitious intent in itself. And yet the film as a whole provides neither the challenge nor the satisfaction it might have, and that's a true disappointment. 5 out of 10.


Little Czech Shop of Horrors
Amusing, disturbing, consistently entertaining film. "Otesánek" is funny, most of all – part ironic fantasy and part low-key farce, even if there are genuine moments of pathos and horror. It's ultimately a satire in the vein of "Little Shop of Horrors" – more abstract, of course, and with babies and baby fever, rather than the American Dream, as the target of its love/hate approach. The movie appears to have been made very cheaply, but Svankmajer exercises tremendous visual skill, and not just with the sad/funny/horrifying manifestation of Otik himself, but also with more mundane images such as an old pervert putting on his glasses or a hand planting a single cabbage seed. And the visuals are witty as well as beautiful – cinematic food has probably looked more disgusting than it does here, but not much more, and it's a perfect fit with this story about appetite and overeating. In the end, the film is undeniably overlong, and worse, begins to repeat itself by the end – it suffers a bit from the "Little Shop" similarities, too. But overall, it's an extremely watchable film, with good performances by the three principals, and a delightful black comic energy. Highly recommended to oddity fans especially. 8 out of 10.

Before Sunset

I probably shouldn't be writing about "Before Sunset," since I haven't seen "Before Sunrise," and I don't even know much of its reputation. But I think even sequels should have stand-alone appeal, and I must confess I found this film to be a very pleasant surprise, even if it sometimes tried my patience. The idea of making a filmed version of a single conversation is sort of inherently uncinematic – I'm no great fan of "My Dinner with André," which as a piece of talk was occasionally interesting, but which never achieved anything as a film that it wouldn't have as a play, or, indeed, as an actual real-life conversation. I anticipated the same kind of problems here, and they are here – having these two chatterboxes move their bodies in and out of cafés and along the Seine is better than having them sit at a table the whole time, but it still doesn't really use the medium to its best advantage. The whole concept has the feel of a gimmick about it – and yet there's something about the film that really comes alive by the end of it. Jesse and Celine are not particularly interesting characters (even they make fun of each other's shallowness and irresponsibility), but there's something almost magical about the big "what if?" that rests in the center of this confection. It's a common fantasy, the desire to know how life might have been different if one single day had gone the other way, and it's maybe a good thing that very few of us ever have the chance to find out. (For all the romance and warmth of the movie's resolution, the odds are even more stacked against ultimate togetherness for these characters than they would have been the first time.) But this uncertainty only adds to the substance, as these two ordinary but likable people romanticize their past and present (but not future). As I said, at times their catching up is a little tiresome, and yet the emotional payoff makes it worth the getting there, and the low-key performances from the two stars become a big part of the film's ultimate authenticity and success. "Before Sunset" is a movie with a heart that sneaks up on even the most jaded viewer, and it has to be recommended for just about anyone. 8.5 out of 10.


Surprisingly bad
It seems like an exciting prospect, a modern-dress "Othello" with Christopher Eccleston, who was so frighteningly good in "Shallow Grave" and (especially) "Jude," and Eamonn Walker, who brought such intensity and introspection to his pivotal role on "Oz." One would think them both natural Shakespeareans, but both performers misfire: Walker's Othello is a fairly cookie-cutter take on the part, with a whispery delivery that doesn't make much of an impact; and Eccleston hams it up appallingly as Iago, winking at the camera in almost an outrageous parody of the role. It's likely he was egged on by his director, whose florid approach might have worked better with Elizabethan language, but who seems a jarring, pretentious choice for this modernized screenplay. And the screenplay itself is less disappointing in being modern than it is in being obvious – it's as if Andrew Davies sketched out the famous plot and then just wrote whatever dialogue first popped into his head. All in all, a failure. 4 out of 10.


It Don't Worry Me?
Robert Altman's films are strange experiments, and even the best ones usually have elements that disappoint, or at least confound. That's what makes it such a surprise and pleasure that "Nashville," one of his most ambitious undertakings, turns out to do everything right. It works on several levels – as character study (for once, there's hardly a character in the film who doesn't get his or her due); as quasi-musical (with Ronee Blakley's and Keith Carradine's songs standing out in the "wonderfully good" category, and Gwen Welles's and Henry Gibson's in the "wonderfully bad" one); as comedy (with Geraldine Chaplin's unforgettable "Opal from the BBC"), as tragedy (with Keenan Wynn's quietly painful Mr. Green), and as a sometimes uncomfortable mix of the two (Barbara Jean's breakdown, Sueleen Gay's degradation, etc.); as realistic cinema, and, especially, as political allegory. Pauline Kael might have been the first to point out the parallels between the country song and the political speech – both are essentially populist art forms, and one finds examples of earnestness and (more often) hypocrisy in both. (As usual, Kael was right in pointing out this detail, but more remarkably, this time she was right that it's a good movie too.) Altman takes this parallel and works it into his slice of American life effortlessly, whether it's in the scene where Barbara Jean and her husband argue about his listening to the "opposition" on the radio, or in the twin scenes where the soldier talks about following Barbara Jean because his mother loved her, and Bill chides Mary about being a registered Democrat simply because her father was. And then, after the climax, Altman closes by having his ordinary Americans respond to the horror by spontaneously singing the words "You may say that I ain't free/But it don't worry me." It's hard to imagine a better example of willful ignorance in the face of a tragedy – or a better example of optimism in the face of it. That, to Altman, is America, and "Nashville" ultimately has as much of a ring of truth to it as any film of his I've ever seen. 11 out of 10.


Strange film
Strange film; basically entertaining, but not exactly a masterpiece. One of the most likable things about Robert Altman is that every film of his has been in some way an experiment, and almost none of these experiments, even the very good ones, work perfectly. This is a great example. As is obvious from the many user comments here, it's difficult to talk about "MASH" without comparing it to "M*A*S*H," and in fact the most important cultural thing the film may have done is establish an aesthetic universe for the TV series to exist in (and that really is the only thing the film and the TV show have in common – as many have pointed out, the tone, style, timing, and even character personalities are quite different between the two). But taken on its own, "MASH" is not really the anti-war polemic it's been made out to be, nor is it the joke-driven movie comedy we might expect from the series' style. Instead, it's a kind of exercise in black-comic tone; it subverts the idea of war not by explicitly criticizing it, even through jokes, but rather by being exactly the opposite of what we expect a traditional war film to be. Here we don't see courage or valor or heroism or honor; we see cowardice and nastiness and vice and stupidity, even from the "good" characters. The movie subtly suggests that war makes ordinary people into silly, stupid, and vicious ones, and Hawkeye and Trapper are no more exempt from this law than Frank Burns; in fact, if anything they are more angry and mean than he is. This unusual approach to the subject matter is well-maintained throughout the film, and never becomes too harsh or ugly – and yet Altman missteps with some oddly chosen episodes (Painless's "suicide attempt," for instance, and the overlong, if symbolic, football game), and the ending of the film is abrupt, making what's come before seem even more pointless and inconsequential. Which may be exactly Altman's point, of course . . . so here we have another Altman film that manages to be simultaneously witty, jokeless, boring, entertaining, confusing, beautifully thought out, artfully constructed and artless, symbolic and realistic. It's recommended, but viewers should ideally go into it with no expectations whatsoever. 7 out of 10.

Gosford Park

Somewhat overrated
Altman's "Gosford Park" received huge acclaim, and on paper it certainly sounds like a tasty concept – a deconstruction of the English country-house mystery from the mind that subverted the western in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and the war movie in "MASH" (among others). Throw in a Who's Who of contemporary British actors and what can go wrong? Well, nothing exactly, but despite some good moments the film never fully lifts off.

The main innovation, of course, is the focus on the "downstairs" segment of country-house society. It's an admirable attempt to give the servants more-than-equal time, for once, and it's not entirely surprising coming from this populist director. But what is surprising is how Altman, for once, does a little *too* much explaining, falling into the Merchant/Ivory trap of fetishizing the period. For instance, did you know that servants visiting country houses would be called by their employers' names? And did you know that latecomers to dinner would be sent a tray rather than being allowed to join the party? And did you know that this fork is for this and that fork is for that, etc., etc. These things may not have been dealt with much on screen before, but that doesn't exactly make them interesting cinema in themselves. The lapse in judgment is perhaps because Altman, for all the authentic Englishness of everything, knows that he's making a movie for Americans; he includes, for instance, an amused American character to goggle over everything, and even gives Helen Mirren the line "Mr. Weissman's an American; they do things differently there." It's a rather cheap joke, but one guaranteed to get laughs on both sides of the Atlantic, if for different reasons.

The film doesn't quite ignore its upper-class characters (we see a lot more begging from them than we are accustomed to seeing from rich people in the movies), but it's the point at which the two classes intersect – in theory the most interesting part of society – that the movie inexplicably shies away from. We know that masters and servants are having sex, for instance – hell, the plot hinges on this fact. Why then are we not given the real-life exchanges between the characters that surround all these couplings? How do Elsie and Sir William talk to each other when they're alone, *really* alone, for instance? Her love for him is obviously genuine – she sees something in him that no one else does, and essentially condemns herself to a life of irretrievable ruin by speaking up to defend him in the bosom of vipers. Why? It's the movie's most fascinating and immediate moment (and Richard E. Grant makes it even more so with his half-smile at its conclusion), but Altman doesn't follow up, and overall seems to be more interested in maintaining the bland British tone than in producing any real content.

As for the performances, it's hard to find a really bad one, of course. Helen Mirren and Emily Watson, perhaps England's two greatest living actresses, are perfect, and make the material seem better than it is. Maggie Smith is nastier than usual perhaps, and looks terrible, but she's still funny, even if she's done the same thing better a hundred times before. Eileen Atkins, Kelly Macdonald, Grant, and many of the other servants distinguish themselves in tiny ways worth watching for. The one sour note is struck by Stephen Fry, but it's less that the performance is unlikable than it is that the character is badly written and unfunny.

All in all, the movie is not a total failure. But it's essentially empty, and not nearly as much fun as it's been made out to be. It just doesn't have any more juice than the Agatha-Christie movie fantasies it's trying to unpack for us, and that can only come as a disappointment. 6 out of 10.

Meet the Parents

Not entirely successful
Unusual but not entirely successful feel-bad comedy. At first glance, "Meet the Parents" seems to be a hybrid of Blake-Edwards-style farce and uninspired mainstream movie comedy (sort of like every movie Steve Martin has made in the past 15 years). But before long we realize it's actually much crueler than that – unlike those essentially safe entertainments, which are always rather boringly humane in their treatment of their characters, this film isn't afraid to get ugly. Its poor protagonist may not be particularly likable (and Ben Stiller's performance doesn't help a lot where that's concerned), but he nevertheless gains our sympathies because of the incessant, unreasonable series of tortures it rains down on him. It parades ugly character after ugly character in front of him, but unlike ridiculous farce figures such as Martin Short's Franck in the "Father of the Bride" series, these people are all too believable, the kinds of smug hypocrites we encounter all too often in life (and that includes Focker's fiancée, actually). That's sort of where the problem comes in - the glitzy Hollywood veneer never really jells with the elements of real pain, and we never particularly want to see Stiller accepted into this family. Worse than that, the film's not consistently funny, though of course it is frequently appalling, and to some that's going to be close enough. 6.5 out of 10.

Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning

Nothing like the other films (i.e., it stinks)
When I first heard that the third 'Ginger Snaps' film inexplicably transported the weird sisters back into 19th-century Canada, I smiled and thought to myself, 'There isn't another horror series clever enough to pull this off.'

As it turned out, even this series wasn't clever enough, and director Grant Harvey, who worked in the crew on both 'Ginger Snaps' and its witty first sequel 'Unleashed,' seems not to understand what was good about these films in the first place. There's no explanation for the temporal jump, which is fine, but there seems to be no *reason* for it either, which is not. The dialogue manages to be pompous and dull without being authentic to the period, the story's incomprehensible, the supporting characters are ill-defined and unlikable, and there are no jokes. Worst of all, Emily Perkins, who did the heavy lifting in terms of acting in the first two films, is given next to nothing to do here, and Katharine Isabelle, not as gifted an actress, is left to carry the material more or less by herself. She's not terrible here, but she has nothing to work with. About the only thing of interest in the film is the beautiful, spooky cinematography, but even that smacks too much of music videos, with its 'subliminal' cuts and generically nightmarish forest. All in all, this is a real disappointment. 3 out of 10.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Not interested in persuading anyone
'Fahrenheit 9-11' added fuel to the fire of Michael Moore's increasingly toasty reputation as a documentarian, and it's not difficult to see why. The film, while featuring several scenes that are extremely moving, feels hastily put together (a problem also suffered by 'Bowling for Columbine') and occasionally tone-deaf (e.g., the long, long sequence where Moore traces the connections between the Bush family and the Saudis--based in fact, but not inspiring the kind of shocked indignation he clearly expects it to). But worst of all, it's not interested in persuading anyone of anything--if you're not already a card-carrying lefty (which I *am*, for the record) you might as well not apply. Moore's defenders like to point out the fallacy of a truly objective documentarian--any filmmaker, they say, by choosing what to show and what not to show, is projecting his own perspective and judgment into the mix. This is certainly true, but just as in narrative film, there's a difference between telling the viewer what to think and allowing him to figure it out for himself. 'Roger and Me' achieves the latter; 'Fahrenheit 9-11,' with Moore's mocking speculations dubbed over Bush's face, does not. It's a shame, really, because the movie's purer moments are very effective indeed--there isn't a better way to express the horrors of war than to look at the parents of casualties. And yet Moore's smug partisanship, apparent from the very beginning, prevents anyone not predisposed to agree with him from getting close enough to his information to judge for themselves. It's a shame, really--but then again, why should they want to? Moore gives them no incentive to convert. 5.5 out of 10.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

One of the best "Dracula" movies ever
Despite the extreme, extreme familiarity of the source material and the stuffy associations of the ballet form, Guy Maddin's 'Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary' emerges not only as one of the best 'Dracula' movies ever, but also as one of the best films about the Victorian Era (ranking with 'The Elephant Man' and 'Topsy-Turvy'). Maddin achieves the first feat with his insight into Stoker's novel (it's exciting to see somebody touch on the misogyny and xenophobia for once), and the second through a fascinating and completely appropriate aesthetic synthesis. Combining a 19th-century novel with a 19th-century pop art form, and setting it to 19th-century music (Mahler's from the wrong country, but so what), is a good beginning, but what makes it work, of course, is shooting it all in a mock-19th-century style. OK, so the silent horror films we think of date from a little later; still, Maddin does what he can to give the film a primitive, experimental, moving-daguerreotype effect, and the result feels like an actual window to the past, even if it's all just an artificial aesthetic construct. If this all sounds a bit self-conscious and over-the-top, it sort of is, but viewers will almost certainly be surprised at how unpretentious the effect actually is. The more explicitly balletic moments occasionally slow things down a bit for non-fans, but Maddin wisely keeps the running time at 75 minutes, and this helps the film retain a surprising accessibility. Not for all tastes, of course, but worth the effort for just about anyone. 8.5 out of 10.

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