Euphorbia

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Reviews

Once
(2007)

Empty
Empty music, empty movie, empty Euro-lives

There's something precious and decadent about hiring real professional musicians to portray aspiring street musicians. OF COURSE they are going to succeed. No lip synching required.

It's not a bad movie, just petty and irritating. And the music, though heartfelt and technically proficient, is very bad. If you like this music, first check to see if you have a pulse; second, check to see if you really want to go on living. It is distilled essence of depression and futility. Blues is sad, but it celebrates life, perseverance. This stuff just curls up and whines.

I love small intimate movies, and really wanted to like this one. But the director didn't allow his characters to be real people -- they don't even have names. They are types, ethnic abstractions with musical talent. It should be a big hit in the retro tribal world of identity politics. Bah humbug.

One element I did like: The young folks don't rebel against the old folks. Instead the old folks have to prod the young sloughers to get out and live.

The Golden Compass
(2007)

Dakota Blue Richards IS Lyra
I love Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, and have read it 3 times. I saw the movie opening day, and I love it, too. Sure the story has been changed in many ways -- think of it as The Golden Compass in Yet Another Universe -- but it works just fine as a 2-hour film. If you want a word accurate dramatization, get the superb audio CD boxed set, of Pullman and a full cast reading for 36 hours.

In the film, the characters and conflicts are true to Pullman's creation. The visuals are brilliant, especially the transforming daemons and the strangely propelled vehicles. The grownup performances are all solid, both energetic and respectful of the material.

But the story is all about young Lyra, and Dakota Blue Richards is simply perfect. If the Oscars mean anything at all (occasionally they do) she will at least be nominated for Best Actress, and deserves to win. Lyra is a little girl like no other (this is the heart of the story) and Miss Richards makes us believe.

No, the movie is not perfect. It might be hard to follow if you don't know the books, and disorienting if you do. Also it seems rushed. I sure hope New Line will offer an extended DVD version -- and then go on to make the next 2 (or 3, or 4) Lyra movies.

Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum
(1975)

The very opposite of what we are supposed to think.
Volker Schlöndorff is either a diabolically brilliant dissembler, or a gifted idiot savant. His public persona of hapless twittering political correctness (see the extras on this DVD) comforts the intellectual and critical elite, while his terse well-crafted movies give the lie to the bloody nonsense those elites espouse.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) is an excellent example of this. The official plot line of the film, mindlessly parroted here on IMDb and elsewhere, describes the young Mrs. Blum as an earnest innocent, a simple housemaid unwittingly caught up in the toils of the vicious capitalist news media and Germany's crypto-Nazi police bureaucracy. This summary neatly fits the pink-tinged world view of Criterion, creator of the DVD version. It does not fit the movie itself.

If you actually watch the movie, rather than just read what you are supposed to think about it, you will realize about three- quarters of the way through, that although the police may be bumbling wretches, they were right all along about Mrs. Blum. She really is a cool and calculating agent of subversion, not just the passing plaything of a terrorist on the run. She is not cool enough, however. Her casual contempt for everyone around her -- for the lawyer and architect who employ and befriend her, for her shady financier lover, for her ex-husband, even for her own terrorist network -- is expressed in her sloppy tradecraft. She drops a damning clue which leads the police directly to her terrorist contact. Oh well, she shrugs, he was a loser anyway, just an army deserter. There are plenty more where he came from.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is not Volker Schlöndorff's best film -- The Legend of Rita (2000), The Ogre (1996), and Homo Faber (1991), are all better movies -- but it is not bad.

*

What IS bad is an insipid documentary on this Criterion DVD. It is a 1977 amateurish interview with Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), who wrote the 1974 novel which inspired Schlöndorff's movie.

Heinrich Böll was a Wehrmacht soldier in the 1940s, turned Movement philosopher in the 1960s. In his stories and novels he shared with a younger generation, including director Schlöndorff, a profound wartime insight.

On the battlefield, Böll had realized that the true enemy of Hitler's National Socialism had not been Stalin's International Socialism; he was old enough to remember the nineteen happy years 1922-1941 when the USSR and Germany had been allied against the West, until Hitler's jealousy had spoiled the grand Socialist coalition. No, what had ultimately defeated Heinrich Böll and his fellow German National Socialists in 1945 had been America and her twin evils, liberty and free enterprise.

Two decades later, in the 1960s, America was on the way to defeating the International Socialists, too, starting in Viet Nam, unless the American military could somehow be stopped there. Böll was a leading orator of the West European branch of the worldwide "Youth Movement," organized from Moscow to resist the advance of America and liberty. "The Movement," as it self-consciously styled itself, did defeat America in the early 1970s - - not in Viet Nam, but in Washington -- leaving much of the world to languish under Communism for another decade and a half, and leaving tens of millions of Asian, African, and East European people to be butchered, their blood spilled on the altar of Marxism. (Leftists are strange people. Rather than bragging of their butchery, they primly deny it ever happened -- while planning the next round.)

Heinrich Böll was a celebrated intellectual hero of The Movement, a "Freedom Fighter" who had fought against freedom all his life, fighting with pen and sword, with typewriter and assault rifle. Böll capped his career with the 1972 Nobel Prize in Literature, its gold medal outshining his by then tarnished Iron Cross. Böll died with Communist global dominion still seemingly on the rise -- expiring four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, where his books had long been Party-subsidized bestsellers.

Böll's no longer youthful Movement lives on today, metastasized throughout the West. Because Moscow is now in remission, for the moment, anyway, The Movement has allied itself with the Islamic Jihadists to struggle against their common enemies, America and liberty, private property and freedom, as well as against Israel and the Jews. Anti-Semitism is back in fashion among the intellectual elite. Perhaps it never left.

So, if you buy or rent this DVD, enjoy the movie as it was actually made, not as it has been described. And unless you have either a strong stomach, or a weak mind, skip the hagiographic Heinrich Böll documentary.

Aerosmith: You Gotta Move
(2004)

Watch the longer version!
Aerosmith is as much a force of nature as it is a band. If you like them you will like this documentary DVD. If you don't... well you still might find it interesting, even enjoyable, as long as you follow the technical advice below.

The DVD is set up so you can watch just the songs, with no breaks between them, or so you can watch the whole movie, with documentary bridge segments leading into each live performance. CHOOSE THE SECOND OPTION! (It is the first option on the menu.)

I made the mistake of choosing to watch just the songs first. I had never seen Aerosmith perform, and had not heard their music in years, so it all seemed to be a jumbled frenetic blur.

But I felt that I must have missed something, and I did have the DVD for the weekend... so the next night I watched the whole movie, as it was meant to be viewed.

Suddenly it all made sense. Each song worked on its own, like pictures in a frame instead of a busy collage, and the pace was perfect. I began to understand what this band is about, and why it has endured for three decades. I liked the movie so much that I watched the whole thing again.

I still cannot grasp exactly how three guitar players and one drummer can build up and sustain such a rich and complex wall of sound behind Steven Tyler's stupendous vocals (and 20,000 screaming fans) -- although seeing them rehearse and record in the the studio -- working up the various parts, then pulling them together -- did help me begin to understand. Other bands need to add keyboards and a horn section, or a fiddle section, plus a few extra percussionists and backup singers, to achieve that sort of high intensity.

* A curious footnote. On the "Willie Nelson & Friends..." concert DVD, noteworthy for its many badly mixed and evidently unrehearsed performances, the very best thing on it, inserted at the end to leave the viewer with a good last impression, is a pair of improbable but brilliant duets sung by Willie Nelson and Steven Tyler, the first in Willie's style, the second in Aerosmith's. Shows what great vocalists both men are (in case you didn't already know).

Orions belte
(1985)

First-rate drama that is also a great documentary
Orions Belte

I bought the 2-disk special edition DVD of this 1985 Norwegian movie mainly because it was filmed in and around Svalbard, site of the northernmost settlements in the world. For this alone it was well worth the price. Not only does the movie show more of the natural beauty of Svalbard than any of the many documentaries I have seen, with lingering perspectives from land, sea, and air, it also shows something that nature documentaries leave out: the gritty life in the Norwegian and Russian coal-mining towns of Svalbard, before the collapse of the Soviet Union changed everything in the Arctic (not to mention the rest of the world).

But Orions Belte also turned out to be an excellent dramatic movie, with the story making full use of its unique location. The direction and acting are so good that I forgot it was a drama, until about halfway through, taking it as a slice-of-life documentary. All the characters look and act as if they belong in the Arctic, and their misadventures are much more like the many firsthand narratives I have read about the real North, than any of the tarted up novels that purport to be set there. The film won the Norwegian Academy Award for best film of the year, and several review sites call it the best Norwegian film ever -- not that it would have had a huge amount of competition. But it really is a good and realistic action movie.

Orions Belte was a joint British - Norwegian production, and Norwegian and English language versions were filmed simultaneously. Both versions are included on disk 1, and both include optional subtitles. Disk 2 includes an excellent 'making-of' documentary, a clip of the Norwegian Academy Awards presentation, and several other brief features. These are only in Norwegian, without subtitles (except a few comments in English by the British producer), but are easy enough to follow, despite this. Plus these short features include even more documentary footage of Svalbard, which needs no narration.

One of the short features on disk 2 details the creation of this 20th anniversary DVD, which involved first a complete frame-by frame restoration of the film (4:3 aspect ratio), followed by digitization, and then color-grading. All this work paid off, as the look and color of the whole movie is terrific, with even the subtle colors of arctic ice rendered accurately. There is only one brief interior scene where the highlights were too far gone to be restored.

This movie was never released in the USA, as far as I can tell, and it does not seem to have gotten much traction in Britain. Even though the English language version is included on this 2-disk PAL Region-2 set, I could not find it for sale on any British websites. Two Norwegian sites offer it for sale, but neither will ship overseas. Happily an Amazon US Marketplace seller who specializes in obscure European movies does stock it, and he ships DVDs quickly at US postage rates (search Amazon for the Norwegian spelling, Orions Belte). You will need a region-free DVD player to view this movie anywhere outside of Europe. Amazon does not sell these, but several eBay sellers do.

Rated 8/10 (comparable to The Bourne Identity).

The Russia House
(1990)

Le Carre blithers, but Connery and Pfeiffer light up Moscow
Despite certain divergences in character and plot, this movie version of "The Russia House" does do justice to John Le Carre's twisted tale. Perhaps this is because so much of Hollywood shares Le Carre's own moral obtuseness -- wishing bureaucratic tyranny upon the rest of the world, while insulating itself with money.

Le Carre cannot tell the difference between West and East, between the bumbling mediocrity of western bureaucracies, and the unremitting evil of the Soviet bureaus, which owned everything in the evil empire, right down to peoples' souls. "The Russia House" was the first of his many post Cold War novels to make it clear that he could not, or would not.

Yet the man does write brilliantly. Le Carre is one of the great masters of English prose. Therefore one can almost forgive his blockheadedness, while one enjoys his rich descriptions, his twisted characters, and his sharp storytelling. It's only the morning after finishing one of his novels, or the hour after watching a movie adaptation such as this, that one's head begins to throb with the bitter, pointless, imbecility of his world view.

The cast of "The Russia House," headlined by Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, is superb, with one glaring exception -- Roy Scheider in pancake makeup is simply not plausible as a CIA manager, even mid level. By contrast James Woods does an excellent job as his opposite number in British Intelligence (with support from a young Michael Kitchen, now the graying star of "Foyle's War"). But this movie is mainly worth watching for the engaging lead performances by Connery and Pfeiffer, even though (or perhaps because) they play their characters quite differently than they were drawn in the book.

The location photography is excellent, with nice views of Lisbon, and many long sequences shot in Moscow and Leningrad. Moscow looks nearly deserted, a graphic reminder that the official Soviet population figure, 5 million, was overstated by at least a factor of seven (according to Robert Heinlein).

There are interludes of wistful jazz woven seamlessly into the story, but much of the rest of the musical score is loud and distracting, especially toward the end. I suppose it was intended to induce anxiety in viewers who could not follow what was happening in the complicated plot. The director should have stuck with the jazz.

*

By far the best screen adaptation of a Le Carre novel is "The Little Drummer Girl" directed by George Roy Hill. It is one of the best movies ever made.

A very good movie that shows an intimate slice of life in the Soviet Union is the French film "East-West" (Est-Ouest).

Pump Up the Volume
(1990)

Set in Arizona, echoes of River Phoenix
This is an engaging and original take on the "High School is Hell" theme. But for me the most striking element was the performances of the two lead characters, Christian Slater as Mark, and Samantha Mattis as Nora -- not just for themselves, but for what they reminded me of.

My all-time favorite movie is "Running on Empty," by Sidney Lumet (1988). The story, style, tone, and production scale of that film is entirely different than "Pump Up the Volume." But...

But the two teen characters of "Running on Empty," River Phoenix as Danny Pope, and Martha Plimpton as Lorna Phillips, were evidently the inspiration for Slater and Mattis in PUTV, so much so that I wonder if "Pump Up the Volume" was originally written for River Phoenix.

Slater is a fine actor in his own right, yet his Mark is an echo of -- or tribute to -- Phoenix's Danny. This is true on a broad scale, both characters' isolation as the new kid in high school, with lots of profound secrets; both characters' pursuit by, attraction to, and turning away from, the alienated pretty but crazy girl in the class -- who yet proves to be the woman who makes a man out of each of these boys.

Vaudeville quote: "Life has a way of evening things up. For every woman who makes a fool out of some man, there's another who makes a man out of some fool."

It's even more true in detail: Mark's manner of walking and talking, his self-effacing modesty around his peers, even the way he flips his hair and fidgets with his eyeglasses, all echo Phoenix's Danny.

Mattis's Nora is a stronger character than Plimpton's Lorna. Her role in the story is more active, and so her performance is more dynamic -- not better, just different. Her look is also very different, unlike the uncanny physical resemblance of Mark and Danny, but this mainly reflects differences in the stories and their settings. Mattis's Nora does seem to have borrowed many of her mannerisms, and her articulate manner of speaking, from Plimpton's Lorna.

Is this character emulation a bad thing? Not at all, at least not here, because it works. Of course when you have a seen "Running On Empty" as many dozen times as I have (hmm, I think I'll go watch it again -- yup, still great), it is more than a little distracting.

This sort of character emulation is not unique in Hollywood. Another example that leaps to mind is Jeff Bridges in "Arlington Road," playing a sort of downbeat Harrison Ford. I expect you can think of others.

As to the movie itself, "Pump Up the Volume" is no more realistic a depiction of high school than most of the movies in its genre -- for the very good reason that a realistic movie about high school would be too boring and too depressing to watch. The best high school movies (e.g. "Dazed and Confused" "Bring It On" "Foxfire") don't show more than a few moments of classes, because no one cares about or remembers most of their high school classes. This is a good thing -- my high school biology teacher said in 1960: everything we are teaching you here will be obsolete in three years (she was overly sanguine. "Facts" were either already obsolete by the time they sifted down to high school, or were wrong to begin with).

If anything, PUTV's vision of high school is even darker than most, and to me this is a plus. Are there really high school administrators out there who are as vicious and depraved as the characters in this movie? Sadly, yes, quite a few, and some even worse. So although this movie is a fantasy, its message should resonate for anyone who was, or is, a teenager.

If you have dug this deep into the website, you probably have a pretty good idea what this movie is about, so I won't recap. I am both picky and eccentric in what I like in movies. PUTV is no classic, but I liked it a lot. If you find you like it, too (or even if you don't), by all means take a look at "Running on Empty," which is certainly a classic. Both films' DVDs can be found in Walmart's $5.50 bins.

Travels in Europe with Rick Steves
(1991)

Is Europe really one big theme park?
I recently bought both DVD box sets of "Travels in Europe," 1991-1999, and 2000-2003, plus the 2004-2005 supplement to the latter. I've always enjoyed this half-hour show when it aired on PBS, and the DVDs don't disappoint -- especially the 21st century series, which is of even higher technical quality than the 20th century set. All boast crystal-clear video, even though they are full-screen. Mr. Steves is an excellent presenter on camera -- friendly, low-key, sensible, informative -- quite a contrast to the smug self-importance and smarmy political correctness he brings to personal appearances, and to the multi-million dollar travel empire this show has spawned.

But as much as I enjoy the individual segments, after watching a bunch of the shows in a row, I now realize that Mr. Steves does look for the same sorts of experiences in every country: the little Bed & Breakfast; the neighborhood café, pub, or bakery; the antiseptically restored old city center; the castle; the museum; the street musicians. Not only does this make all European countries seem similar, like a chain of franchised "Olde World Theme Parks" modeled after Colonial Williamsburg (perhaps they are), it makes me wonder: is there also a real Europe out there somewhere, where real people live, work, commute, study, play soccer, and so on? I suppose there must be. Maybe it just isn't very telegenic. Every once in a while Mr. Steves does show a few seconds of mundane life -- ticket lines, airports, college dorms, subways, slums, traffic jams, suburbs -- then it's back to "The Best of Europe."

In part I had bought these "Travels in Europe" DVDs as sort of an antidote to romantic cinematic views of modern Europe, such as "Amelie" and "Notting Hill" (which are both excellent movies). Yet these "Travels" segments in fact reinforce that romantic view, so I suppose the real antidote might better be found in European slice-of-life fiction films, shot on location.

One does see hints of the real Europe (or at least a slightly more real Europe) in some fictional films. Recent ones I've liked include "Mostly Martha," set in Hamburg, with a brief freeway side trip to Italy; "Bread and Tulips," which offers a vivid contrast between romantic Venice and modern suburban Italy; "Besieged," set in a dreary corner of Rome; "The Spanish Apartment," mainly set in bustling Barcelona, with hilarious bookend segments inside the French bureaucracy; "The Legend of Rita," with its poignant view of East Germany during and after reunification; "The Bourne Identity," much of it filmed on the streets of Paris; Tavernier's "L.627," with its gritty view of Parisian slums; and "Wonderland," with its bleak view of contemporary London.

Of course I mainly bought these "Travels in Europe" DVDs, and several other travel documentaries, as an alternative to actually going to Europe. They offer all the high points neatly packaged, with none of the dreariness, weariness, and dyspepsia. Eternal sunshine for the spotless minded traveler, or what the photographer Jeanloup Sieff called "Imaginary Memories." This aspect does work just fine, and all for less than the price of one sleepless night in a Paris hotel.

If IMDb let us rate TV series, I would give "Travels in Europe" a 9 out of 10.

Prêt-à-Porter
(1994)

One big party for the cast; an oddity for viewers
In the large and immensely distinguished cast of actors, singers, couture designers, fashion models, and lap dogs that Robert Altman assembled for this mad Parisian romp, only one of the participants actually does more than the most perfunctory acting. That one star is Kim Basinger. With her spirited portrayal of FAD-TV anchor Kitty Potter, she is the ringmaster of Altman's circus of multiple twisted and interlocking rings.

Is "Ready-to-Wear" a great movie, or what? What! No, it's not great, nor even very good.

Is it entertaining? Not really, not in any coherent sense. If you try to get involved in the plot, you will only get dog-doo on your shoe.

But it can be fun to watch, if nothing else to play the game called, "Come on, who IS that?" Robert Altman enjoys such godlike status among the Holloywood elite, that he was able to enlist some of the most sought-after A-list players of three generations to perform for him in Paris, or at least to show up for cameos. To play this game, print out the IMDb full cast list, then try to spot each one of the listed players in the movie.

Finally, even if you decide to fast-forward through "Ready-to-Wear," do slow down for the climactic runway scene. It is well worth the price of a rental, not that this scene has very much to do with the rest of the story (such story as there is). This scene does prove that if you are Robert Altman in 1994 (or Walerian Borowczyk in 1974) you can stage an extended scene of naked supermodels for a feature film, merely because you wish to. Rating: 7/10.

Somehow, the one movie that "Ready-to-Wear" most reminds me of is "And the Ship Sails on" ("E la nave va"), 1983, by Federico Fellini -- despite Fellini's cast of unknowns, and its low-budget operatic staging.

Le jupon rouge
(1987)

The Outline of a Good Movie
Three excellent actresses starred in this film, but it is more radio play than cinema. "Le Jupon Rouge" is not a bad movie, but it is just a shadow of what it might have been. The story is too sketchy to really engage the viewer. The characters are not developed enough in the course of the action for us really to care about them.

The story hinges on the inner brittle fragility of an outwardly tough Holocaust survivor (Alida Valli). Her character is a political writer and activist, while Marie-Christine Barrault portrays her long-time secretary and aide.

Their story had real potential for drama and emotion. But most of the drama played out off screen, with the characters talking about what was happening, or had just happened, or had happened in the past, rather than depicting any of it happen. Most of the emotion was off camera, too, with only an episodic sampling shown on the screen.

The director, who also co-wrote and produced, needed help and advice from someone who better understood cinema. She had assembled a fine cast. She had a good eye for dark low-key settings and locations. But she did not seem to grasp that a story on the screen must be shown, not just told, and that dialog must be part of action and emotions, not merely talk about action and emotions.

"Le Jupon Rouge" is disappointing -- especially because the wonderful Marie-Christine Barrault has made so few movies (she chose family life over stardom). She starred in "Cousin Cousine," one of my favorite romantic comedies (it's better than the American version, "Cousins"), but "Cousin Cousine," too, like "Le Jupon Rouge," is not available on DVD, only VHS. She is at her most radiant in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories;" indeed she is the main reason to watch that film.

The Lady and the Highwayman
(1989)

1988? Or 1938?
Although filmed in 1988, this British made-for-TV movie captures the look and feel, the melodrama and romance, even the stagy lighting, of a big-budget 1930s Hollywood swashbuckler. By 1930s standards, it is a first-rate film. By today's standard, well, that's not really a fair standard to judge it by. It lacks the scale and fancy visual effects of "Braveheart," or "Gladiator," but in its quirky old-fashioned way, it is a better movie than either of them. And it is miles better in every possible way (including historical accuracy) than the egregious BBC/A&E "Charles II" mini-series (USA title "The Last King"), set in the same time period, with many of the same characters, that was broadcast in 2004.

"The Lady and the Highwayman" is based on a Barbara Cartland romance novel, and set in Restoration England of the 1660s. Yet with a shift of locale, and a slight re-write, it could just as well be a western. Think "Zorro." Indeed it borrows lots of bits and pieces from classic westerns -- such as Hugh Grant's character jumping from atop a 30 foot wall on to the back of his horse.

"The Lady and the Highwayman" was filmed in England, using several real period castles and manor houses as locations. Both the detailed sets and the lavish costumes mesh seamlessly with the period buildings. The costume department did a great job, as much with the soldiers' uniforms, armor, and weapons, as with the courtiers' finery.

The cast is excellent, and the dialog, by Terence Feely, was well written. 28-year old Hugh Grant looks young and suave, but doesn't say a whole lot. The star is young Lysette Anthony, then 25, and she is terrific. Oliver Reed is a menacingly villainous Phillip Gage. Michael York is a dashing King Charles II.

I just saw the film on a $1 DigiView DVD sold by WalMart. It was definitely not a digital transfer -- but its graininess and off colors actually enhanced the impression of its being a 1930s film, rather than 1980s. It's no classic, but I enjoyed watching it, and I've seen plenty worse. 6/10.

For another quirky and retro view of 17th century England, check out "Winstanley" by Kevin Brownlow.

The Bourne Supremacy
(2004)

Sequelitis
The Bourne Identity is a very good film. Its realistic action was given depth by the relationship of Jason and Marie.

This vitality is missing from the mediocre sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, in large part because Marie's appearance in this sequel is just a brief cameo with no depth, and which would have no meaning apart from her central role in the first Bourne movie. Franka Potente still gets top billing in the credits, even though her screen time in Supremacy is barely a couple of minutes.

Moreover, the conflict of Bourne vs Conklin vs Ward Abbott in the first movie gives both energy and plausibility to the action. Ward Abbott alone is not an interesting or energetic enough adversary to build this sequel upon, and the addition of Kirill does not add much, since he has no more depth than the disposable Treadstoners of the first film -- just more screen time than they had. Pamela Landy might have been an interesting antagonist turned protagonist, but her character does not evolve over the course of the movie, even when she changes her mind about Bourne, and neither for that matter does Bourne's character, nor anyone else's.

Many reviewers, even some halfway intelligent ones, rated this Bourne sequel higher than the first film. Are their standards really that low?

I've tried to apportion the blame for the sequelitis suffered by this film, but with limited success.

Maybe it's fault of the original novels, but I haven't read them. The story of Bourne Supremacy is certainly weaker than that of Bourne Identity. It is merely episodic, rather than following a true story arc. Its arc is so low that even a really talented director would have trouble Limbo-ing under it. Various things happen in sequence, but none of them really matters, or changes anything. The movie ends with yet another sequel hook. Sigh...

Doug Liman did a much better job directing Identity than Paul Greengrass did with Supremacy. Even though I detest Liman's movie, Swingers, he does have what it takes for cinematic greatness. Greengrass, on the other hand, seems to be a journeyman second-unit director who has over-reached himself. Greengrass's disjointed car chase in Moscow is a weak shadow of Liman's brilliantly choreographed turn in Paris.

The cinematography of The Bourne Supremacy is downright bad. Greengrass's odd trick of constantly jerking the camera to agitate the action is annoying after the first 10 seconds, and painful to watch thereafter. It was a bad idea, badly executed -- or maybe it was merely the vacuum resulting from a lack of good ideas.

Bourne Identity: 8+/10

Bourne Supremacy: 6-/10

I wish I had never seen Bourne Supremacy, because it has cheapened Bourne Identity for me. But I guess I couldn't resist.

Before Sunrise
(1995)

Brilliant, Beautiful
I love small movies in perfect plausible settings.

I love believable romances.

My favorite feel-good movies are "Running on Empty," "Ruby in Paradise," and now "Before Sunrise," which I just discovered, in time to watch it before seeing its 2004 sequel, "Before Sunset." Although now 9 years old, "Before Sunrise" still feels timely and brand new.

All the essential elements came together: wonderful natural writing (the hardest kind to do), perfect casting, superb direction and performances, lovely photography, great use of unconventional locations in and around Vienna.

This movie has little action, no violence, no explicit sex, no special effects, minimal supporting cast (just the two principal characters), and the whole story spans less than a day. This only goes to show how much 'stuff' is not needed for making a great movie, as long as the essential elements are all present. And no amount of 'stuff' can compensate if any of those elements are missing. 10/10

The Company
(2003)

A Dance of a Movie about Dance
The DVD extras with some movies make the film seem better than it did just watching it. "The Company" is a good example.

I'd wondered, briefly, why star Neve Campbell also got producer credit. The DVD 'making of' documentary explains that the whole project was her idea; she'd been a dancer long before she took up acting, and wanted to combine the two. She chose Altman to direct, because of his skill at portraying relations and interactions among people in groups.

Altman did a fine job depicting dance, both rehearsals and performances. Campbell showed she can still dance. Malcolm McDowell gave a great performance as the acerbic company director. The Joffrey dancers were brilliant. Altman has created a dazzling cinematic album of what the world of dance is like at the beginning of the 21st century.

But the story arc was weak. This was no accident. In a recent (October 2004) interview, Altman said:

Question: "Why do you think you're drawn to stories about big groups of people sharing the same space? Did it have anything to do with growing up in such a large, close-knit family?"

Robert Altman: "Possibly. I don't know. That's a little too cerebral for me. I'm not much interested in stories anyway. I'm more interested in reactive behavior."

That sums up "The Company" very nicely. The movie is a montage of scenes of "reactive behavior" among realistic characters, and in this it is more like real life than a more structured story would have been.

Of course there is some story structure here, involving the creation of a new dance. This story is engaging, because the outside choreographer is a fey flake, and dance disaster seems foredoomed. But the dancers, being good soldiers, follow his orders diligently. And despite all expectations, at least all of my expectations, their climactic performance is superb.

But this story is not central to the movie. Again like life, it unfolds amidst all sorts of other organizational and interpersonal drama.

And for this reason the movie left me unsatisfied. Part of what I look for in movies, and in books, is a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end. I look for this precisely because life is rarely that neat. Many directors deliver this arc (and many more try to, and fail). Robert Altman chose not to try. He is free to do that, and I am free to rate this movie 7/10.

Lucía y el sexo
(2001)

Give it a chance -- or two
I watched this movie on DVD the first time, kept wanting to like it, but couldn't. It seemed disjointed and wantonly shuffled, like a dismantled jigsaw puzzle. Elena's pointed gesture at the story printout near the end finally made clear to me that the movie's resemblance to a Klein bottle (a 4-dimensional moebius strip whose neck opens back into its center) was intended, not accidental. In other words, it was not my fault that I could not follow the story, but rather the director's purpose that I should not. Why he chose this structure still eludes me, but there it is.

I thought about this afterwards, baffled because the performances were excellent, yet the overall effect was both annoying and disappointing. My gut reaction was to rate it low (5/10) because the chopped up structure was so distracting, yet this seemed unfair because many of the elements were really good.

I watched the DVD again the next night. Already knowing the story made a tremendous difference -- along with realizing from the beginning that the "mermaid" is not Lucia, which on a cinema-size screen would possibly have been obvious, but was not obvious on my monitor. I found the structure a lot clearer, and could really savor the terrific performances, particularly by the three women.

Most remarkable of this first-rate ensemble is Elena Anaya (Belen) who is in the same class as Audrey Hepburn. She doesn't get much dialog, and doesn't need it. She conveys every nuance of her beguiling but sinister character by glance, expression, and gesture, that all come across perfectly with or without subtitles. Ethereally beautiful, forthrightly erotic, sweetly innocent, dangerously demented -- that's Belen. Her wordless reaction to "first and last" is one of the most memorable such scenes in cinema, and most actors will never come close to equaling it.

** POSSIBLE SPOILER FOLLOWS **

There is one thing about this movie that I disliked the first time, and that I positively came to hate the second time. This was the color design. It was dreadful. Its rationale was "explained" in one of the DVD interviews, but its being intentional made it even worse than if it had merely been a technical glitch.

Sex and Lucia was shot on 24P HD video, which allowed free manipulation of the color palette anywhere in the movie. The problem was that Medem and his team used this new power recklessly -- and did so in every single scene. The net result was that most of the movie looks as if it had been shot on outdated Ektachrome, developed at Photomat, and then left out in the sun for a few months.

Hint to budding directors: For emotive color manipulation to work, there must be a baseline of realistic color that one moves away from -- or it will come across as a mistake. Moreover the shift into abstract or emotion-based color must happen organically, without calling attention to itself.

Peter Jackson did this masterfully in Lord of the Rings (explained in the DVD appendix to the Fellowship of the Ring). Jean-Pierre Jeunet did it even better in Amelie. Wayne Wang did it reasonably well in Center of the World (also shot on video, like Sex and Lucia). But Medem, alas, got swept up in the novelty of this technology, so that it is constantly obtrusive and distracts from his story.

Medem set up two artificial color schemes for this film, one for Madrid, the other for the island. These were further varied by whether a particular scene was past or present. But the schemes did not differ sufficiently from each other to make it clear where or when a scene was unfolding, while they all differed so much from real color and light that the color grading became a barrier between the story and the audience.

Overall rating 7/10 -- with possible further revision upward.

*

If you like Sex & Lucia, you might also like:

Romance, by Catherine Breillat

Center of the World, by Wayne Wang

Summer Lovers, by Randall Kleiser

A Girl in a Swing, book by Richard Adams

Notting Hill
(1999)

Redeemed by Roberts, but might have been much better
Part of what defines Julia Roberts as a star, is that her presence in a deeply flawed movie can make it worth watching. This is true of Erin Brockovich, of Conspiracy Theory, and most especially of Notting Hill.

The director of Notting Hill hopes we will buy the transformation of his supporting players from two-dimensional slapstick loser-clowns to real people, but this lazy device can never work, at least not for me (this same flaw weakens Clint Eastwood's 'Heartbreak Ridge'). Let the characters be 'real' from the beginning. We will get their flaws, and their inner strength, without being whacked over the head.

If Notting Hill were to have been made with the same two stars (Roberts & Grant), but with the realistic supporting characters and London atmosphere of 'Wonderland' (1999, a weak movie with only supporting roles, but no center), along with the skillful romantic direction that Sidney Lumet brought to 'Running on Empty' (1988, an infinitely better movie, with a similar romantic plot to Notting Hill), this could have been a great film.

As made, Notting Hill is still worth watching, although the flaws severely weaken the romantic effect -- like sardine frosting on a chocolate cake. 7.4/10

Heavenly Creatures
(1994)

Peter Jackson with training wheels
The most startling thing about this movie is how much of the senior production staff of Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson had already brought together for this earlier film. Jackson's superb skills as a cinematic visualizer are also already evident in this polished production. The man 'thinks movie.'

But alas Jackson is still thinking out loud here. The ventriloquist's lips are moving, and the dummies are too obviously made of wood (I mean the characters, not the animated clay figurines). In this film, Jackson's abilities at directing actors were, let us say, still latent.

In "Heavenly Creatures," Jackson set out to make a 'true crime' version of George Roy Hill's "The World of Henry Orient." That film missed perfection because of the affected cornball performance of Peter Sellers in the title role. If this was the performance Hill wanted, shame on him. But if this wasn't bad direction but rather mis-casting, then double-shame on the director for failing to replace Sellers when he found he could not control him. When Peter Jackson found he could not control his original 'Aragorn' in making "Lord of the Rings," he fired him and hired Viggo Mortenson.

By contrast to the one bad casting choice in "Henry Orient," in "Heavenly Creatures" nearly everyone seems mis-cast, with the single exception of Sarah Peirse. The rest of the performers never let you forget that they are playacting -- which is fine on the stage, but not on the silver screen. If this was intentional on Jackson's part, well 'nice try,' but it doesn't work. I suspect it was not intentional, because this same weak direction is evident in the first scenes Jackson filmed for LOTR -- the four hobbits pursued by the black riders. Luckily for Jackson, and for all of us viewers, he found the confidence to begin directing realistic performances around that time (I suspect that his veteran producers on LOTR might have taught him a thing or two about this).

Besides "Henry Orient," "Heavenly Creatures" invites comparison to two other films I have seen recently -- "A Real Young Girl" by Catherine Breillat, and "Lost and Delirious" by Lea Pool.

Breillat has certainly mastered the art of getting realistic performances from her actors. But she goes much too far in that direction, forgetting that the seemingly unedited intimate reality of relentlessly ordinary people is boring to watch for an hour and a half (then again, if you like "Reality TV," which I loathe, then you might also like Breillat's films).

Pool's film is a lot like "Heavenly Creatures," and just misses success for pretty much the same reasons: it is not possible to believe in or sympathize with the characters -- the problems not being so much in the script or the production, but in the nuances of direction, the failure to "make it real," to transcend stereotypes and create authentic individual characters.

(For girls school movies done right, check out "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "Mona Lisa Smile.")

5/10

The World of Henry Orient
(1964)

Too bad about Sellers
This is a lively, intelligent, mostly enjoyable film, but it misses perfection because of the affected cornball performance of Peter Sellers. Sellers plays Henry Orient, but he seems to be performing in some completely different movie.

If this was the performance the director wanted, shame on the director. But if this wasn't flawed planning (and writing), but rather mis-casting, then double-shame on the director for failing to replace Sellers when he found he could not control him.

Great physical comedians such as Sellers, or Robin Williams, or Steve Martin, must be held on a tight rein in the intimate arena of cinema, or their manic energy kicks out the frame, and tramples the rest of the cast. What saves this movie is that Sellers does not have a lot of screen time, and almost none on the same sets with the rest of the principal players.

Instead of Sellers, Hill should have cast Elvis Presley... Really! Elvis would have been a perfect and totally plausible Henry Orient. And the movie would have been both a huge hit, and an enduring classic. Thanks to Sellers it is merely a curious period piece.

7/10

The Royal Tenenbaums
(2001)

Only in the movies can a con man be cured
Question: Can a two-bit, chiseling, psychopath and bully of a con man (Royal O'Reilly Tenenbaum) be re-born late in life as a human being?

Answer: Only in the movies.

Specifically, in this movie. I have seen such con men try to "be real," but it always turns out to be just another con.

Wes Anderson built his movie on this unlikely -- make that impossible -- premise. He created an alternate universe, where a con man can be healed by love. There is a note of poignancy here, as if there were a psychopath in Anderson's own life, perhaps his father, whom he hoped would some day change. This cannot happen in real life, con men never change, so Anderson went ahead and made it happen on screen.

And he did it well. As a straight drama this story would have been unbearably bleak. But as surreal fantasy with comedic structure, it tells it like it isn't -- a modern fairy tale rooted obliquely in the absurd, a fantasy of a world that only superficially resembles our own. Think of it as an intergenerational Amelie.

The Royal Tenenbaums is clever, well cast (except for Bill Murray, who seems in a hurry to leave), superbly executed, and fully engaging. At least it was to me.

On the other hand I can understand not liking this movie, especially if one is still susceptible to psychopaths (hint: if you watch Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, or Ted Koppel, you're susceptible to being conned).

Hey, Hey, Hey! Wake up! It is OK not to be conned. The emperor really has no clothes. You have permission to stop being a victim. Turn around and walk away.

In my business I daily encounter antique collectors who have been conned repeatedly, and usually it is because they cannot admit the possibility of being conned, so they just go along and make up a rationale for why it's not a con, when of course it is.

Etheline Tenenbaum gets it. You can too.

*

Bound
(1996)

Original, engaging, deliciously twisted noir fantasy
8/10. Would have been higher than "8" had there been more sex on screen, especially between Violet and Corky. When bluenoses complain about 'sex and violence' in movies, what they really mean is that they don't want sex diluting their violence. To them I say: Stick to video games.

Comparisons are odious, so let's compare this movie:

"Bound" is not in the same league as such great gangster dramas as "The Shield" (on FX TV, and now on DVD) or "L.A. Confidential," probably because the ambiguities of the cop perspective are inherently more dramatic, and hence more interesting, than the simple-minded gangster world.

But "Bound" is better than "Wild Side" (either version), which is similar in theme and structure to "Bound," but "Bound" is a more polished and more dramatic movie.

"Bound" is much better than "Miller's Crossing," which seems more like a low-budget amateur stage play than an actual movie. "Miller's Crossing" has big empty sets, and big empty characters. "Bound" is just as stagey, but the sets are richer, and the characters are much more interesting -- equally unrealistic, of course, but that's part of the fun of the noir genre.

And "Bound" is much, much, much better than the Warchowksis' 'other' movie, "The Matrix," which I consider an incoherent failure -- explained in detail in my comments. I don't know if the popularity of "The Matrix" reflects the failure of American education, or the failure of the war on drugs, but one would have to be either irrational, or stoned, or both, to overlook the lapses in "The Matrix."

The Usual Suspects
(1995)

Sorry... What's the big deal here?
The supposedly "trick" ending became obvious less than half way through, and the movie was soporific anticlimax after that. Even before that dim-bulb revelation, it was only mildly engaging, with essentially two-dimensional noir characters, none of whom were interesting or sympathetic. 6/10

If this is really the 17th best movie ever made (current IMDB standing), then cinema is in even worse shape than I realized.

Notting Hill
(1999)

Redeemed by Roberts, but might have been much better
Part of what defines Julia Roberts as a star, is that her presence in a deeply flawed movie can make it worth watching. This is true of Erin Brockovich, of Conspiracy Theory, and most especially of Notting Hill.

The director of Notting Hill hopes we will buy the transformation of his supporting players from two-dimensional slapstick loser-clowns to real people, but this lazy device can never work, at least not for me (this same flaw weakens Clint Eastwood's 'Heartbreak Ridge'). Let the characters be 'real' from the beginning. We will get their flaws, and their inner strength, without being whacked over the head.

If Notting Hill were to have been made with the same two stars (Roberts & Grant), but with the realistic supporting characters and London atmosphere of 'Wonderland' (1999, a weak movie with only supporting roles, but no center), along with the skillful romantic direction that Sidney Lumet brought to 'Running on Empty' (1988, an infinitely better movie, with a similar romantic plot to Notting Hill), this could have been a great film.

As made, Notting Hill is still worth watching, although the flaws severely weaken the romantic effect -- like sardine frosting on a chocolate cake. 7.4/10

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
(2002)

A Tribute
To Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens,

Dwarf Lord and Ladies of the Southern Islands,

And to Their 3000 Sworn Companions,

Who from the Bottomless Depths of The World's Greatest Novel

Mined and Wrought The World's Greatest Movie,

My Humble Gratitude and Joyful Admiration.

*

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings will forever set the standard for cinematic entertainment. Henceforth you cannot help but ask: was watching some other movie, TV show, sporting event, etc., a better use of your leisure time than re-watching a couple of hours of LotR? Probably not, especially once we get hold of the extended DVD versions.

* * * * *

To the naysayers out there:

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- I know the film's not perfect. Neither, for different reasons, is Tolkien's book. Get over it. [Just one example: in the book, Sam's speech is shot through with maritime references, natural to an Englishman, but no Shire hobbit had ever seen the sea.]

I give 4 derisive 'Bree Belches' to Roger Ebert's delicately fatuous and thoroughly erroneous critique of The Two Towers's supposed lack of faith to the trilogy, which he acknowledges he has never read. Well, I *have* read the books, about a dozen times in the past four decades (starting with the hardcover first edition in my high school library, when that was still the only edition), and I believe that Peter Jackson's movies are true to the heart, soul, and characters of the story, and that the liberties he took with the plot were warranted by the translation to film, and some are genuine improvements (e.g. replacing Glorfindel with Arwen). Ebert pompously claims, "The last third of the movie is dominated by an epic battle scene that would no doubt startle the gentle medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien," but the Battle of Helm's Deep is in fact just as big and dark and violent in the book as it is in the movie, and both are tame compared to what Tolkien would have experienced firsthand as a line officer on the Western Front in the Great War.

For a much more perceptive review, from another critic who has not read the books, check out Joe Morgenstern's column in the Wall Street Journal of 12/20/2002.

*

For others who like to obsess over details, consider this:

Six of the eight Middle-Earthly members of the Fellowship are princes of their people. Aragorn is heir to the throne of Gondor; Boromir the eldest son of its ruling steward. Legolas is the son and heir of Thranduil, king of the Mirkwood elves. Gimli is nephew to Thorin Oakenshield, dwarf king under the Lonely Mountain, and cousin (and therefore potential heir) to Balin, late lord of Moria. Merry is heir to the Thane of Buckland, while Pippin is in direct line of descent from the Old Took. Only Frodo and Sam are commoners -- a rich eccentric country squire and his devoted gardener, nostalgic timeless English characters singularly resonant for Tolkien's own shattered generation.

Jackson essentially omits this set-up from the movie. In the book it does not become important until after the fall of Sauron. Alas Jackson has stated that "The Cleansing of the Shire" will not be part of his Return of the King, though he was careful not to reveal what *will* be included. Narsil re-forged will play a part, one hopes. Elrond does set this up. And would zombie-master Jackson dare to delete the Paths of the Dead? One hopes not.

Drop Dead Gorgeous
(1999)

Mean-spirited, heavy-handed, anti-American -- but funny
It's crude, it's predictable, and the novice director's fashionable contempt for all things middle-American shines through. I guess this must be his initiation to the Hollywood elite. But there are some funny jokes here, and the always amazing Kirsten Dunst makes the most of an ineptly written role. Worth watching if nothing else is on TV. Not worth renting. 6/10

Timecode
(2000)

Too many degrees of freedom
There is a rule in science that for an experiment to be meaningful, all the variables must be controlled but one. That rule could be applied to experimental cinema, too; at least it should have been applied to this film.

Time Code combines two experiments, one that has promise, and one that is doomed. The promising experiment involves multiple screens following different parts of the story in "real" time. The doomed experiment involves requiring actors to script and direct themselves.

In addition, this movie was shot in four simultaneous uninterrupted takes. Maybe this was an experiment, too, but it is comparable to live theater, which is not exactly a novelty. It is neither a good thing nor a bad thing -- and should be a matter of complete indifference to the audience, as long it works. Instead of cutting from scene to scene, our attention shifts from screen to screen.

The four-screen experiment did work reasonably well here, especially on DVD, where one can instantly back up to catch bits one missed. The multi-view device might even have been truly excellent in this film, had it not been for the other experiment -- the Absentee Director.

A feature movie is not an improv sketch. There is a reason that an army has one general, and that a movie has one director. Although each of these endeavors requires the effort and cooperation of many talented people, both a military campaign and a feature film must be focused on one person's vision and goals.

Time Code has the same fatal flaw as Dancing at the Blue Iguana. Each actor was instructed to invent his own character, and then to direct himself. In Time Code each performer was evidently told to make of his character a recognizable Hollywood stereotype. The result: eight variations on "coke-snorting pretentious but sycophantic loser," who all walk stiffly through their parts like zombies trying to perform soap opera. I cannot imagine how desperate a viewer would have to be, in order to care about any of them.

I suppose this should not reflect badly on the performers, although it cannot have helped their careers. I have seen most of them in other films, and they are all capable actors. It does reflect dismally on the director. Where was he hiding while the four cameras were running? Maybe he was busy watching four tumble dryers at the laundromat up the street.

Time Code might be worth a peek on dollar-day at the video store -- which is how I found it. Otherwise, forget it. 3/10.

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