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Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
I was never a huge fan of Will Ferrell's. To me, he's just like Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler in that he hasn't outgrown adolescent status when it comes to his sense of humor. However, seeing him in Wedding Crashers, The Producers, and Talladega Nights recently forced me to appreciate the comedic talent that he's been hiding. And now, with Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell has forced me to acknowledge that he can act. And quite well, too, which was a very pleasant surprise. Luckily, the movie was just as good as he was.
Playing Harold Crick, an IRS agent without a social life who counts his toothbrush strokes each and every morning of his life, Will Ferrell is marvelously understated. Some critics have said he underplays Crick to the point of boredom, but I think he leaves enough of himself to keep us entertained. And even with that, the plot and characters around him are so amusing and intriguing it wouldn't have mattered if Crick were dull.
The story kicks off to a start within the first five minutes as we embark on Crick's daily routine, narrated down to the very last carefully counted step on his way to work by Emma Thompson, a suicidal writer who is authoring her next book about Crick and his humdrum way of living. However, Crick hears her voice dictating his every move and is upset by this- naturally. Especially when he hears Thompson predicting his premature death.
Forster deftly balances Harold's impending doom with his discovery of the joys of life, most importantly in Ana Pascal, a baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (wonderful and fiery), who at first hates Crick and his IRS background but then grows to love him. Through Pascal, Harold learns how to enjoy life outside of his job, which he never enjoyed in the first place. The genius of Stranger Than Fiction is that it manages to take matters of life and death very seriously while at the same time finding much light in simple everyday facets of the world such as cookies or a kiss or a good book. I'm not sure how you combine existentialism and compassion in the same movie, but Forster and Ferrel and Co. pulled it off in a very creative way.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
I don't see the point of a movie that goes to great lengths to tell a story that says nothing. When you have the money to give attention to great production values and employ a top-notch cast, why would you waste it on a pointless story? I was only mildly entertained by this film, mostly thanks to Jimmy Stewart and his as-per-usual impeccable acting, but when the ending came and there was no payoff, I found that what little entertainment present was not satisfying enough to make up for it.
Good ol' Jimmy Stewart is Paul Biegler, a lawyer that was recently ousted from his position as district attorney by some younger blood. Biegler comes upon the case of Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara), accused of murdering the man that raped his wife (Lee Remick), and Biegler, hesitant at first, decides to take it, defending Manion with an insanity plea. This insanity plea could have led to some good drama, indicting the justice system as containing too many loopholes for guilty men. Instead, the movie continues the story without focusing on this and misses the chance to make the point.
Here at the beginning, the movie shows promise. The actors prove to be very good from the very start. Stewart, who was often unjustly accused of lacking versatility, is actually quite different from the George Bailey everyone knows; the difference in Stewart's characters is always subtle, but it's there nonetheless, and he received an Oscar nomination for his subtlety. Here he seems weathered and jaded, but still good-natured and sensible. Lee Remick begins the movie wonderfully as a carefree femme fatale who doesn't properly react to her husband's incarceration. The scenes between Remick and Stewart are the best in the movie as she flirts with him and seemingly looks to seduce him; however, the film doesn't follow through on this, as with so many other things. Halfway through the movie, the script seems to forget that Stewart and Remick had such good chemistry and removes from our sight any juicy scenes with the two of them.
The trial part of the movie is entertaining enough, even though it falls into the cliché of overly loud laughter from the court audience whenever the judge or attorney makes a joke, but it still left me longing for more. George C. Scott, who was nominated for an Academy Award inexplicably, adds barely anything to the movie. Scott is definitely a great actor (see Patton), but he's greatly underused here as the lawyer the district attorney brings in to help with the case. All he manages to get across is that his character is a snob.
And then at the end of the trial, the ruling is given and that's that. Is it too much to expect something more from a movie? I understand there are movies that are made specifically for entertainment, but this is not one of them- there is nothing so entertaining here to rest an entire movie on it. I know it's adapted from a novel so I don't really know if the author of the book is to blame or the filmmakers, but it doesn't really matter who's to blame- the movie still isn't good.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
The cast is great, the movie good
Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn sure know how to have fun. They seem to bounce off of each other with ease and pleasure, milking each scene for all it's worth. That pleasure is contagious in this movie, a buddy comedy that turns into a romantic comedy with a little bit of drama mixed in and a pinch of Will Ferrell to spice things up in the last act- all of which blends together quite nicely, which really is no surprise at all considering the talent involved.
Vaughn and Wilson are marriage counselors (how these characters ever got into this field of work is beyond me- beyond them too, probably) who spend a few months each year crashing weddings (i.e. attending weddings without invitation and singling out a young woman, one for each man, for a night of "fun"; after all, women are more prone to give in to a charming man in light of the passions brought about by weddings, and the two men don't see any harm in taking advantage of this). Their characters, Jeremy Grey and John Beckwith respectively, are so serious about wedding crashing that they have a whole list of rules and a specific season in which they can crash. Unfortunately for the two of them, at a wedding late in the season, both of them end up involved with girls they can't seem to get away from.
And this is where the romantic comedy comes into play. Until this point, all the funny came from the banter back and forth between Wilson and Vaughn (who, by the way, should form their own improv duo), but Isla Fisher steals every scene she's in as a sex-obsessed daughter of a government official (Christopher Walken) who has her heart (and body) set on Jeremy. This is a case where going over the top was exactly what was needed, and Isla Fisher delivers with gusto. Rachel McAdams has a plainer and less flashy role as Fisher's sister and, coincidentally, the woman that steals Owen Wilson's heart right out from under him, but she, as usual, is still quite good. Will Ferrell makes a cameo appearance near the end as the man that invented wedding crashing, and his performance deserves to be seen for how terribly wrong it is and yet how funny it still manages to be.
The cast is better than the movie though, which is not an entirely bad thing. Instead of weighing us down with a deep message about the power of love and love conquering all, Wedding Crashers lets its actors run wild. Though it's not without its morals- it celebrates having fun and political incorrectness, but it also has an understanding of a person's limits and responsibilities to himself and those he cares about. But really, a movie like this is just a playground for the talent involved. And boy is it fun to watch them play.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Powerfully emotional and inspiring
I look back on this movie and I find myself realizing that it was one of the most moving movie's I have ever seen. Not that I've seen an incredible variety or astonishing number of movies. But I do know that I am a relatively average 17-year-old who loves movies and I was inspired by this movie in a way only a few other films have.
Don Cheadle, a Best Actor Oscar contender for 2004, gives his all to his portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager that sheltered hundred of refugees during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hotel Rwanda is more about Paul's story than the massacres in general, and that's not a bad thing. Seeing this catastrophe through the eyes of a man in Paul's position means that we are party to key figures: a U.N. Colonel (Nick Nolte) who wants to help but is constrained by the limits of his orders, a spoiled general (Fana Mokoena) who provides military protection for Rusesabagina's refugees in response to flattery and bribery, and an American journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) who delivers one of the key revelations of the movie: "I think if people see this footage, they'll say 'Oh, my God, that's horrible.' And then they'll go on eating their dinners." Africa is too far away for it to be of any concern to people like us.
But all these characters take back seat to Paul in the narrative; they occasionally provide obstacles, such as when the general refuses to give any more police support until Paul bluffs desperately, but the movie belongs to Paul and, inherently, to his family. Don Cheadle plays Paul as a man whose family is more important to him than anything else; his first and foremost concern is for his wife and children and there are moments where he must choose between them and the other Rwandans in his care. His wife, Tatiana, is emotionally played by Sophie Okonedo as a compassionate woman who, even as strong as she turns out to be, feels she needs her husband in order to survive. The love between Paul and Tatiana is one of the anchors in this movie, and thanks to the screenwriters and Okonedo, Tatiana is just as well-developed a character as Paul.
While Hotel Rwanda may focus in on this one man and his heroism, the movie manages to skillfully indict the outside (white) world for not taking the initiative to interfere in this conflict. The question of whether or not we could have done anything is moot in this movie; when faces as human as these are painted onto the problem, it seems like we at least should have done something.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Don't expect much
Justly remembered for revolutionizing the business (though more of the movie is silent than the producers would have had you believe), The Jazz Singer is nevertheless, at its best, a mediocre movie. It inspires nothing in the hearts and minds of its audience, and it seems to be so enamored with what we are hearing that it forgets to worry about what we are watching.
This was the only major work of Al Jolson's career, but what he does here is very good and probably the best thing about the movie. Jolson is Jack Robin, a name he changed from Jakie Rabinowitz to escape his Jewish heritage. He grew up the son of a Jewish cantor and was expected to follow in his father's spiritual footsteps but instead leaves home to seek a career as a jazz singer. The big climax of the film is the night when Jack must make the decision to perform in a revue that could be his big break in New York or to sing in his dying father's place even though the cantor had disowned him.
Silent movies derive their strength less from their stories than their images; the Jazz Singer's story is not amazing, but with inspired imagery it could have been very moving. Instead, I found myself pretty bored. One could use the time period as an excuse for this, but when Charlie Chaplin can make brilliant movies like "The Gold Rush," one expects more from a hyped-up movie like this.
All that said, there is something exciting in the feeling that you are watching history like this. When Al Jolson said that famous line "You ain't heard nothing yet!" I felt I was a part of something far bigger than just a modern revolution in film made for commercial purposes; realizing the future movies that this one affected and knowing the art that it helped to create was an awe-inspiring moment that only those who love the movies can really understand. So as a piece of history, The Jazz Singer is worth seeing; but as a movie, it fails to inspire.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
A blistering experience
Black Hawk Down is simultaneously bruising to watch and impossible to look away. It is not the first war movie to place us in the middle of the action so skillfully, but it is definitely one of the best and one of the most harrowing. And it is not necessarily the endless and endlessly realistic action that makes this movie such an achievement; Scott manages to say something with that action and because of that we have a better understanding of war and those who fight it.
Too much happens within the fabric of this film for me to provide a genuine summary of the plot, so I'll give a brief outline: a team of Special U.S. Forces is deployed in Mogadishu, Somalia with orders to apprehend a warlord who has created famine in his area when one of their Black Hawk helicopters is shot down and they become entangled in a never-ending battle with the Somali militia, fighting to save their own lives and the lives of the men around them.
Scott has assembled a genuinely ensemble cast with virtually no standout names at the time except for Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor, who both do a fine job, but the character that left the deepest impact on me was Eric Bana's Hoot. Hoot is one of the few Rangers that knows his way around war and fighting and is almost ruthless in his tactics. However, he never loses his compassion and he reveals at the end that he truly understands why he fights- "It's about the men next to you. And that's it."
The fact that this conflict was not even supposed to be war in the first place makes the movie all the more powerful. We are audience to many mistakes by the leaders of this outfit; the ground forces are led by helicopters from above and the navigators in these Black Hawks lead the Rangers astray many times. It seems to go on forever sometimes, but that is not to the detriment of the movie. On the contrary, it only adds to the reality of the situation. We are not subjected to nonstop fighting; there are moments between the soldiers and sometimes moments between the Americans and those attacking them. Even in these moments, though, Scott never relents from his indictment of war or his appreciation of the compassion of these soldiers.
Fight Club (1999)
Oh, Fight Club, you almost had me there
Movies like this are intensely frustrating. They get so close to the greatness mark, enticing you with how good they are, and then, at the last second, as if to spite you, they pull back and go for the Hollywood ending. And then you almost forget the brilliance of the rest of the movie. And any filmmaker that can come close to blocking out the memory of the great parts of his movie with just one crucial scene needs to be beat up. Or have his face shoved into Meat Loaf's man-titties.
But I can mostly forgive David Fincher for leaving that copout ending simply because the rest of the movie is so darn good. This seems to stem mostly from Jim Uhls's close adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, a masterpiece of existentialist grit and wit. The film follows the book through most of its plot, incorporating much of Palahniuk's clever and bitter commentary on our material society into Edward Norton's jaded voice-over narration, which is unnerving for the five seconds it takes to get into the rhythm of the story. That's how good this plot is adapted- we can settle right into a rhythm and a dark tone that match those of the book perfectly.
Edward Norton is the perfect choice for Fight Club's bored protagonist, as is Brad Pitt as Tyler, the enigmatic man that encourages Norton's character to join him in starting a fight club. In this club, men come to the basement of a bar and essentially beat each other up in an attempt to reach into the core of their manhood (the screenplay says it with far more deftness than I do). But it's about so much more than the fight club, as Norton's narrator soon discovers. Tyler has a plan to change the very fabric of their society and in the process changes the very fabric of Norton's character's life- more than he realizes at first.
For the entire movie, Fight Club is about man's slavery to society and his escape from it. Unfortunately, the ending, which I won't spoil, takes an entirely different direction from this theme, and, as a result, takes the movie an entirely different direction from greatness. The ending of the book, however, is perfect, and if Fincher had stuck with the book through the entire first two hours of the movie, why couldn't he use the book's perfect ending for the last 10 minutes?
It's still a must-see though- the ideas expressed by this movie are some everyone should hear and ponder. Plus, it's freaking good entertainment.
My Fair Lady (1964)
Great onstage, suffers on screen
It is strange to me that My Fair Lady has built up so much acclaim over the years. It's charming enough in its own witty way, but there is so much lacking here it is hard to believe that some people really consider it one of the best musicals of all time. In fact, the only reason I gave it a 7 and not a 6 is because of Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Their charm alone is enough to elevate it to classic status, and perhaps that is why the movie has lasted so long and so high up in the ranks.
Audrey Hepburn is Eliza Doolittle, a dirt poor flower girl who meets Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) on the street one evening when he severely criticizes her pronunciation of the English language. The song at this point in the story, "Why Can't the English," is one of the best in the play, but in the movie it is strangely boring and flat. It seems to me to be a directorial problem- he didn't know what to do with it so therefore he did nothing. It so happens that Professor Higgins meets the esteemed Col. Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) on that same night on the same street, and the Col. makes a bet with the Professor that he cannot make a lady out of Ms. Doolittle. And so follows many a song and clever banter.
Audrey Hepburn is wonderful as Eliza, there's no question about that. Julie Andrews, the original Eliza on Broadway, probably could have done as well if not better with the role, but that's Hollywood for you. Hepburn finds key differences and similarities between her lower-class self and her expertly trained but misused self to make Eliza a very real person. Rex Harrison, as stuffy as he makes Professor Higgins, is quite funny and sympathetic. Even when we are aware that he is a big, if well-educated, jerk, we want him to realize his faults and go to Eliza. Despite his skill with this role, his winning Best Actor seems a little much simply because there's not much true acting in the performance, but perhaps he didn't have much competition. And there's no denying how entertaining he is as a chauvinistic pig.
Besides the two leads, nothing else is impressive about the movie. Stanley Holloway's (Eliza's dad) numbers, like "Why Can't the English," are some of the best songs in the play, but just aren't much fun on screen. The best sequences in the movie come when Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison perform either together or solo.
It's depressing that one of the best musicals onstage just comes across as dull in the movies. Hollywood didn't mess it up with Fiddler on the Roof or Guys and Dolls- so why mess it up with My Fair Lady?
The Departed (2006)
Best movie of the year
The very beginning of The Departed struck me as very similar to GoodFellas. It begins with a boy telling of his first experiences with the mob. The locale even seemed the same. There are other instances in the movie where Scorsese seems to allude back to GoodFellas, a movie many consider to be one of his masterpieces, but in my opinion I think The Departed is all its own and even exceeds GoodFellas in quality and profundity. And besides that, it's also incredibly entertaining.
The movie has been advertised as a thriller, and it succeeds at that very well. Leonardo Dicaprio plays Billy Costigan, a cop assigned to not be a cop ever again; instead, he will be a plant in Frank Costello's (Jack Nicholson) outfit. Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan, a cop who works on the side for Costello who entrusts him with the job of finding the mole in his gang. Scorsese weaves an intricate tapestry of deceit and mistrust with bloody and jarring violence mixed with intense scenes where the various disguises are on the verge of being uncovered. It's a very entertaining tapestry; nothing is for sure, and while that could have been frustrating, Scorsese involves you so much in the characters that you understand that when you're wondering if Billy or Colin is lying, they're wondering the same thing.
Exploring themes like family and identity and loyalty is not new hat for Scorsese. He contemplated the same ideas in GoodFellas with his depiction of the life of a mafia man. But in The Departed he takes it a step farther and asks the question of what happens when you lose that identity and pretend to be someone you're not. This opens up opportunities to discover what happens to the characters' relationships in these circumstances. Scorsese was blessed with an amazing cast to help him in this task. Leonardo Dicaprio gave an amazing performance two years ago in The Aviator, and while I think that may be his better performance, there's no denying the power and truth in his desperately soul-searching undercover cop. He deserves another Oscar nomination for this, but he probably won't get it because Jack Nicholson is getting most of the notice (not all of it good) for his performance. Some critics are complaining that Nicholson went over the top; I don't think so at all. Everything he did was appropriate as the ultimate kingpin of the Boston mob because his character can get away with anything and knows it. Matt Damon has the least to do of the three of them, but Damon is a good actor and is no less than that here. Vera Farmiga has a good stint as Damon's love interest and Dicaprio's shrink; the lack of identity for both Damon's and Dicaprio's characters has a tasking effect on her and she holds her own against the two men.
There's no doubt in my mind that this is the best movie of the year. It has by far the best ending to a Scorsese movie out of the three I've seen. The profundity and inevitability of the last few scenes is perfect. If only the Academy would agree. The only true contenders against it so far for the Oscar are Babel (not as complete as this one) and The Queen (which isn't as big or brawny as The Departed). Besides, Scorsese has been ignored for far too long. This would be a very appropriate time for him to win, and with this movie he would deserve it.
But Oscars aside, I would recommend this movie to anyone who appreciates thrilling stories with meaning behind them. Those kinds of movies are few and far between, so grab onto this one and keep hold of it while it lasts.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
One of the greatest movies ever made
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why this is such a good movie. I loved it when I was a kid- and I can't say exactly why it was so good back then either. And yet I can't deny the fact that it's a great movie.
The story sounds ludicrous if slightly charming- Dorothy, a young farm girl, gets caught in a tornado with her dog Toto and, when the storm finally sets her house down, finds herself in the magical land of Oz where she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, all of whom look strangely like the farmhands that work with her aunt and uncle. Dorothy is sent on a journey down the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City to find the Wizard of Oz whom she is led to believe will help her get back to Kansas.
Apparently, L. Frank Baum intended it as an allegory to the politics of the time, but I can't see why anyone would care about that when the movie stands on its own two legs just fine. I think the main reason it works so well is that there is never a feeling of ridiculousness throughout the entire movie. Oz is strange, but it's meant to be strange; it never feels completely unrealistic though. I think this has something to do with the contrast provided by the Technicolor applied to the film when Dorothy is Oz and the sepia look when Dorothy is in Kansas. Oz is a different world, but not an entirely unreal world. Our dreams may be larger than life, but there is always something very real about them.
Maybe that's the special allure this movie always has for me. Oz is real in this movie. There's never a sure explanation of Oz as Dorothy's dream, but there might as well be. And when I dream, I want to escape into that world because sometimes it's more exciting and better. Dorothy's world is drab, and Oz helps her to see the good in it- the color in it.
Metaphors aside, The Wizard of Oz is a fun movie. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is one of the best songs ever recorded, and many of the other songs in the movie are memorable. Judy Garland is obviously not an amazing actor, but her naïveté makes her performance very true and it's near impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
It may be hard for me to establish exactly why The Wizard of Oz has remained such a classic, but there's no difficulty in saying that it is truly a great movie.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Almost as good as I remember it
Movies like this remain sterling in the mind of someone like me that watched them constantly as a toddler. I would not have admitted to it, but I loved this movie. Watching The Little Mermaid again at 17 years, I don't love it quite so much, but I can still say it's a very good movie.
Ariel is the youngest daughter of the king of the mermen. She dreams of walking as a human and when she meets a prince named Eric, she falls in love and trades her voice with a sea-witch in order to become human.
A plot summary like that makes this movie sound incredibly boring. Memorable songs and hilarious characters like Sebastian, a crabby crab that Ariel's father assigns to keep her in check, and Scuttle, a bird who thinks he knows everything but clearly does not, keep the story lively and entertaining.
This Disney movie doesn't inspire me with as many feelings of praise as the Pixar films or Beauty and the Beast or the Lion King. But it's a fun movie, and I have to say it has some of the best music Disney's ever put to film. Part of Your World, Kiss the Girl, and Under the Sea are great songs and make the movie worth seeing in themselves. Luckily, the rest of the movie is worth seeing too.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
The best soap opera I ever did see
The story sounds too soapy to be any good. If it weren't for its players, it may have never gotten any recognition. But with George Stevens, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters along for the ride it was a success; and more than that, it is a very good movie.
Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, a man with nothing much to his name except an uncle who owns a factory. That uncle gives him a job working on the assembly line where he meets Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), and the two of them begin to see each other even though it is against the rules. Soon George moves up in the ranks of the factory and meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy and vivacious young woman. Angela's wealth and status offer George luxury and security, and he must make a heavy decision regarding Alice.
The subtlety of this movie is remarkable. George spends much of the movie proclaiming his love for Alice and Angela, but is he ever really in love with either of them? Or are they just objects of his desire? The film never answers the question and that is as it should be. We also never see exactly what happens at the two moments that change George's life forever. We never know fully what decisions he makes. All we see are the ramifications.
Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters are remarkable. Clift especially creates a full portrait; we never quite know what he's thinking and we get the feeling he is not sure either. I suppose that could be construed as bad acting, but I think it is quite the opposite. George was meant to be a waffling character, untrustworthy and deceitful, and Clift's infuses him with uncertainty mixed with impassioned desire. Elizabeth Taylor is good, but she is not given much to do.
This is the first movie I have seen of George Stevens's. It is an intense and suspenseful commentary on greed and the caste system inherent in our society in the early 20th century. Is it relevant to today? Well does it matter? It has great performances and the plot was good enough to hold my attention for 2 hours. If you like classic movies, you'll love it.
So close to being great
It's really frustrating to find a movie that comes so close to being great and only a few minor faults are holding it back. Luckily, it's not so frustrating that it ruins the experience. Unbreakable is still an intense and emotional movie and I wish M. Night Shyamalan was still making movies like this.
Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a man unhappy with his marriage and his relationship with his son. David is trying to get a job in New York so he can move out of the house and move his life in his own direction. When his train back from New York derails, David is the only survivor and he is sought out by a fragile man named Elijah, who believes David is special.
This could easily be cheesy, but Shyamalan wisely plays up the comic-book feeling of the plot while maintaining a certain sense of reality. Bruce Willis is a good choice as the passive David, a man not sure where he fits in the world. Samuel Jackson, always good, is great here; it's probably his best role that I've seen since Pulp Fiction. Robin Wright Penn also has some touching moments as Willis's despairing wife, as does Spencer Treat Clark as his neglected but loving son.
The problem is not with the story or cast, but with the direction. There are some awkward transitions and some moments that should have been played out longer; it sometimes feels like Shyamalan is copping out on giving us real drama and instead giving us an outline of what happened. But no matter; it's still an intriguing movie and it has some great images. And while it may not be on par with his The Sixth Sense and Signs, it comes close, and that's good enough.
Magical and different
The movie started and I wasn't quite sure what I was watching. There were moments at the beginning when I had no clue what was happening. But as it continued I was drawn more and more into the story to where I accepted anything the story threw my direction. I was a part of the movie in a way very few movies can involve me.
Disney movies have their charms and I'm a big fan of some of them, namely the Pixar movies and a few of the 2D ones, but this will be unlike anything you've ever seen before (unless you're already familiar with Hiyao Miyazaki, in which case you'll probably be able to fully appreciate Spirited Away). I'm not going to ruin the plot for anyone, but I will say that it follows a girl named Chihiro on her journey into a spirit world and her discovery of how to take care of herself and those around her. There is far more to the movie than that, but I'll let you enjoy it for yourself. It's worth it.
The Matrix (1999)
I love this movie
The Matrix has become such an iconic movie that it's hard to say anything new about it. I'm hesitant to try. Everyone knows it's a good movie- and if they don't believe it to be good, they know it's a well-loved movie. I, for one, love it, but I don't think it deserves to be so high up in the Top 250.
The Matrix is a good example of a movie that pretends to be about something in order to keep your attention. The truth is that the story in this movie is so good and the characters so engaging that it doesn't need the message (be careful about getting too dependent on your machines- they might kill you). The way the story is executed is also nearly ingenious. When we first meet Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer for a software business that sidelines as a black market dealer in computer parts, we do not know the secret of the Matrix. The Wachowski brothers do not reveal the secret till about a quarter of the way through the movie- the perfect time to do it; any shorter, and it wouldn't have been a shock; any longer, and the movie would have become boring and there would have been less action, which is the real star of this movie.
Neo meets Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a man proclaimed to be a terrorist by the government through the media, who gives Neo the choice between returning to his boring life and discovering the truth about the Matrix. Neo's choice sends him and the characters he meets into intense gun-and-fistfights. In between the action sequences, Morpheus spouts some philosophical tripe that could be considered deep, but there's really no life behind it; I didn't care. The movie is fun, and that's all that matters.
I don't think it's a great movie, but that doesn't matter. If you're just looking to have fun and sit on the edge of your seat for a few hours, then this is a great movie for that.
Poetic, but lacking true emotion
There are only a few moments in this film where I felt true emotion and true compassion in the cinematography-laden Babel. There's no doubt in my mind that the filmmakers meant for there to be more, and because of that it failed to inspire me as much as, say, Crash did. I cannot deny the power of this movie, but it is not grounded or powerful enough to resonate in the mind like Crash does.
This is not to say that Babel is a bad movie. It is quite a good movie with very good performances. Brad Pitt is barely recognizable with a beard and several wrinkles. But the imperfection of his features doesn't matter when compared with the realistic passion behind his performance as the husband to a wife (Cate Blanchett) that mistrusts him. When his wife suffers from a bullet wound, you forget all about his stardom and focus on his love. Blanchett has less of a role to play as the wounded wife, but she effortlessly conveys the layers of her relationship with her husband behind the pain and anguish of her suffering.
The two Moroccan boys who shot her are part of a separate but interlocking story about a rural family in Morocco that just purchased its first rifle. When one of the boys shoots at the bus Blancett is on, it sets off a chain reaction that sends Morocco and America into political turmoil, not to mention their family. There are no-name actors here, and they are not particularly stunning, but their story is touching. Another storyline, possibly the least memorable of the four, involves the children of Pitt and Blanchett and their Mexican nanny who takes them across the border. Gael Garcia Bernal is terribly underused in this portion of the movie, but when he is on screen he steals the show.
The best, most disturbing, and most pathetic storyline is that of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-dumb Japanese girl suffering from unsatisfied sexuality. The lengths to which she goes to fulfill her desires are pitiful and moving, and her character is the most nuanced in the movie.
The cinematography is truly breathtaking in some parts of the film. I will be surprised if this is not up for a few Oscars at the end of the year. It is a profound movie and deserves recognition, but in my opinion, it does not convey its message nearly as clearly or deeply as it could have.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
My new favorite movie
Before I saw this movie, it was hard for me to imagine why so many people liked it. I figured it must be one of those gritty movies that people like because of its harsh realism, but in truth it is so much more than that. In fact, I don't find it very gritty at all. I can now understand why it is the second highest movie on IMDb's Top 250 and why so many of my friends list it as their favorite movie. It is the most emotionally powerful movie I've ever seen and I doubt anything I see will top it.
Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a man convicted of killing his wife and her lover. Morgan Freeman plays the convicted killer Ellis Redding that befriends Andy in prison. These are two very touching and true performances. Tim Robbins should have at least been nominated for an Oscar for the quiet intensity he brought to his role. He takes on the right sense of mystery required for the role and he gives the movie the conviction it needs to reach its emotional heights. Marlon Brando claimed that some roles are actor-proof- the story is so good that no actor can mess it up. This could possibly be one of those roles, but I can't help feeling that a lesser actor would have overacted and destroyed Robbins's character. Morgan Freeman was nominated, and justly so (though it is an injustice that he was chosen above Robbins; they both are equals in this movie). He complements Robbins beautifully as a stoic man that understands prison life better than anyone else. He also narrates the movie; we see things through his eyes and experience things through his words. As in Million Dollar Baby, his voice provides the movie with its thematic focus. The supporting cast is fine, but James Whitmore stands out as the prison librarian.
The actors do not make this a great movie though. They were given a great story and they lived it for us perfectly, but it is the story that lives on after the movie is over. Stephen King may be a pop fiction author, but he has an extraordinary grasp on human nature which is brought to light in Shawshank.
Marlon Brando also said that movies are good because of what we bring to them, and I suppose there's some truth in that, though there are some movies that are good no matter what- Casablanca and Citizen Kane, for example. I don't know which category this movie belongs to and I'm afraid that because I love it so much I don't trust myself to say. I can say, however, that everyone can identify with the triumph of the human spirit, and maybe that explains why it is such a beloved movie.
It really is a shame that The Shawshank Redemption came out in 1994, the same year as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. All three are great movies, and all three deserved Best Picture. But to me, Shawshank is the best of them all and will continue to resonate with me for a long time to come.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
A depressing and frustrating experience
The movie's frustrating because it gives you a problem in this world to be angry about, depressing because that problem probably won't be solved anytime too soon. It becomes even more depressing because it puts more than one face on the problem and allows us to see the issue through someone who experienced it firsthand.
It doesn't matter if that person is fictional or not. Ralph Fiennes makes him real, and Meirelles surrounds him with what looks and feels like the real world. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat married to Tessa (Rachel Weisz, in a heartbreaking performance just as noteworthy as Fiennes's). Justin has a job to do in Africa, and Tessa makes him take her with him, despite his misgivings. They end up entangled in a pharmaceutical battle that has taken lives before and, before the movie is over, will take many more.
The subject matter here begs to be heard, and Meirelles has provided it with a compelling venue. He films with a style that constantly keeps us engaged. It's hard to find fault with this movie. I didn't find myself wholeheartedly loving it either, but I admire it for its courage and emotional truth. The Constant Gardener grips you from the start in the lives of these two people and never lets you go, not even when the movie is over. It's hard to forget this story. I wouldn't want to.
Such a great movie
And yet the ending felt like a copout, an anticlimactic way for the filmmakers to get out of coming up with something better. This movie deserved a great ending, and it got a quick job instead. But maybe that's as it should be. Maybe there was no better way to end this incredible movie. It's a true story, so obviously the movie had to end a certain way. However, considering the talent involved, you'd expect something more.
But however much I didn't like the ending was a quarter of how much I liked the rest of the movie. Maybe this isn't how the mob actually works, but the way Martin Scorcese films it seems about as realistic as a movie could get. The narrator takes us into the inner workings of the mob, explaining how everything is done and what everyone's job is. Of course, that would mean nothing without good characters, and the main character, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), is a great one. Not a great person, mind you; he's wanted to be in the mob all his life and the movie chronicles all sorts of nasty things he and his colleagues do to other people. But the character is great, partially because Liotta is so magnetizing. One of my friends thinks Liotta is the worst in the movie, but I don't think so. We see everything from his perspective, so we actually don't see a whole lot of him. But when we do, the movie is on.
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro give good performances as Hill's best friends, and Pesci deserved his Oscar for being a hothead that causes the mob a lot of trouble. But I really think Liotta takes the best performance in the movie and his was definitely an underrated one. Lorraine Bracco is also effective and versatile as Hill's wife. The two of them are more than convincing from beginning to end and the movie would not be the same without them.
Martin Scorcese has made a brilliant movie, never boring, always alive. He's obviously a master director, but that darn ending maybe the next time I see the movie the ending won't bug me so much. Maybe I'm overreacting. I certainly wouldn't want my qualms about the resolution to keep anyone from seeing such an incredible film.
The Apartment (1960)
One of the most creative ideas for a movie ever
I wish I had come into this movie not knowing what happens, because I have a feeling I would have enjoyed it even more. As it was, I still loved it.
The idea on which this movie is based is so clever, it's hard to understand why they hadn't made it before. A young man named C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows the executives of the company where he works to use his apartment for pleasure, usually with women other than their wives (figures). While this is going on, Baxter finds he is in love with a certain elevator girl at the company named Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). I'm going to go ahead and stop there so I don't ruin anything for you. The plot is too creative to waste in a comment.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why The Apartment succeeds so well. Perhaps it is because the characters ring so true. This is the first movie I've seen Jack Lemmon in, and I have to say I like him a lot. He manages to be funny without breaking away from his character, something I admire in the actors of the Golden Age and something the actors of this age need to learn. There was not a moment in this movie when I felt like Bud wasn't doing what he felt was the right thing. In fact it seems to me like this movie is about Bud and Fran discovering what "the right thing" actually is. Fran is played by Shirley MacLaine in what could have been an over-the-top, whiny performance. MacLaine manages to turn Fran into a wonderfully sympathetic and strong-willed woman, despite the fact that she's stuck on the wrong guy. Fred MacMurray has a nice turn as a man who never quite understands the girl he brings to Baxter's apartment, and ends up selfishly pushing her over the edge.
Of course, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond have written such a witty and character-driven screenplay, it must've made the actors' jobs easy. This is more than just a comedy, and while at first glance it seems to be very simple, the more you think about it, the more you realize how much is really there.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Good, but not great
There's really nothing wrong with this movie. It's well-scripted, well-captured, well-acted (especially by Julia Roberts, but I'm sure I'm not the first to say so), well-staged, and well-decorated. There's a level of realism here not seen in a lot of movies, and I suppose that's something that gives the movie credit. But the truth is there's not much here.
Julia Roberts is marvelously natural, and Albert Finney complements her well, though, truth be told, he only has one scene where his acting can really show off. There are touching moments between Brockovich and her kids and between Brockovich and George, her main squeeze during the movie. Marg Helgenberger gives a nice turn as a depressingly disparate victim of the company that Brockovich is attacking. But it all adds up do a genuinely moving but formulaic film that seems to add nothing new to the genre but one more movie.
A lot of people seem to lift the movie up because of how brave its main character is and what she stands for. It's a worthy cause, to be sure, but is it cause to label Erin Brockovich as a great movie? I don't think so. It's good, I enjoyed it, but it's nothing special.
Cast Away (2000)
Robert Zemeckis will probably never again reach the heights of "Forrest Gump", but I'm glad he continued making quality movies such as this one. Like "Forrest Gump," this movie is one of a kind; it's unlikely we'll ever see another movie that takes the risks that this one did. To make a movie where over three-quarters of it is just Tom Hanks, half-naked and not talking, takes a lot of guts and a lot of skill. So did "Forrest Gump," and Robert Zemeckis pulls it off again, though not quite with the same knack for weaving sentimentality into genuine drama that he displayed with "Forrest Gump."
The first two hours or so of the movie is brilliant. Zemeckis and Hanks present us with Chuck Noland, a by-the-clock-or-die FedEx supervisor, who is obviously in love with Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), who, just as obviously, loves him back. He boards a plane to Malaysia to deliver some packages and tells her he'll "be right back." The plane crashes in the Pacific. Chuck is the only survivor and is washed up on a deserted island. And there is where the real movie begins. We see Chuck learn how to survive and fend for himself in sequences that could have been slow and tedious but, with the realism in which they are presented, become fascinating.
Tom Hanks's performance is just plain great. He takes up most of the screen time and Zemeckis lets us see into his passion and despair. Hanks, in fact, never takes a wrong step. It is the screenplay that trips up in the last 20 minutes of the production. Some people say the ending feels tacked on. I disagree; most of the ending is just fine, and fits right into this examination of what a real person would do in a situation like this. However, a few of Chuck's lines near the end strike a forced note- not because of Hanks delivery, but because one feels that no one could say something that cheesy well.
Even so, this is quite an experience. Not as creative as "Forrest Gump," to be sure, but who cares? I don't think Zemeckis will ever try to beat his masterpiece and if he keeps making movies like this one he won't need to. This is good enough for me.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Definitely a superior thriller
About halfway through this movie I realized that it was much better than the average thriller. There is a scene between Matt Damon's character, who has lost his memory, and Franka Potente's character, Marie, who picked him up based on an offer of $20,000, when Marie says he'll probably go inside and then forget she's out there, so she might as well just leave. He replies, "How could I forget about you? You're the only person I know." This line shows the backbone of this thriller.
Matt Damon does not know who he is, where he came from, or what he's supposed to be doing. We don't know either. The things he can do, however, beg the question of whether or not he is an average person. Like say, speaking several different languages and knocking two cops out in 5 seconds.
This could have just been an average thriller, but this level of the unknown makes it all the more compelling. We never quite know who anyone is, not Matt Damon, nor Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Franka Potente, Clive Owen, or Julia Stiles; but the relationships are drawn so well that we can guess and infer, and that's all we need in this. The redeeming value in this movie comes from the action sequences and the suspense. Matt Damon's stoic performance anchors everything into a cohesive and coherent picture that never fails to engross.
I think this has been dismissed as just another thriller. I also think it's better than that. Go enjoy yourself and see it.
The Green Mile (1999)
A profoundly moving movie
I found myself nearly moved to tears by this film and its characters. The story is wonderful and the movie is cast so well, you can almost forgive the moments where it doesn't feel quite real.
Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, who is the highest-ranking guard at death row. The movie begins with a new prisoner (Michael Clarke Duncan) arriving at the Green Mile as they call it, so named after the green floor. This new prisoner changes everyone in the prison- criminals and guards alike.
The performances very nearly make the movie. Tom Hanks doesn't have an incredible amount of acting to do (Duncan and Jeter take the main honors in this movie), but as usual he is so honest and real I had no trouble believing him, no matter how outrageous any choices his character makes might seem. I also liked David Morse as Brutal, Edgecomb's second-in-command and good friend. Neither actor is able to steal the scene away from the prisoners though; and I don't think they really try to. If they did, it would have thrown the movie off-balance. Michael Clarke Duncan plays a simple character but he invests him with such passion and honesty that he comes off as real and unreal at the same time- the perfect combination for a movie about the unexplainable. He is perfect as Coffey, and without such a good performance in this role, the movie would have been mediocre. Michael Jeter is also very good and sympathetic in his role as the French prisoner. Doug Hutchison is appropriately sleazy in his role and Sam Rockwell appropriately crazy in his. The way these performances fit together is amazing to watch.
Besides the cast, the story is superb. It balances the real and supernatural so well, the supernatural seems to fit perfectly into this world. The movie also wisely does not explain the phenomena- sometimes there are things we just can't explain. I won't ruin exactly what happens, but I will say this: the movie was telling its story well before anything supernatural happened, but when it does happen it feels right, and you know you're dealing with a movie that has all the trappings of achieving greatness.
However there are certain scenes that feel awkward to me. The scene where Paul invites the other guards to dinner and then forces them to decide what to do seemed contrived to me, as did the entire prologue to the movie. Even so, I really liked the movie and the epilogue is so satisfying and it completes the movie so well, I'm willing to put those scenes aside and wholeheartedly recommend this movie. It's quite a story, and deserves to be heard by anyone who loves movies.
Inside Man (2006)
A good movie, but it should have been better
Because this is directed by Spike Lee, this should have been a better movie. As it stands, it is a good movie with an above-average plot that doesn't quite deliver. It could have delivered, but the screenplay reveals things in places it shouldn't reveal them and takes too long to reach its ending.
However, with that said, I must say I liked the movie. The performances are great- Denzel Washington is snappy and intense in a role that requires little real acting but must have been great fun to play. He's a jerk with a big heart and brain, and you can tell Washington loves being this kind of guy. Clive Owen is appropriately firm and angry in his role as the bank's main robber, and Jodie Foster is terse and sarcastic. You never know quite who she is, which I suppose is the point.
It's a very thrilling movie with some intense action sequences and some scenes that are just plain brilliant. A scene where Clive Owen's character and a kid discuss the kid's video game is so true, as is the scene where the Sikh is mistaken for an Arab. The flash-forwards to interrogations of everyone at the crime scene are helpful and allow some character to show through.
All in all, the movie was entertaining but not as complete as it could have been. I like it though, and I definitely recommend it.