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Thread: Vizvii's Assorted Film Reviews

  1. #1
    Last edited by Vizvii; July 29, 2012 at 01:14 PM.

  2. #2

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    American Beauty - 1999

    I thought I'd begin my movie reviewing business with one of my personal favourites. After all, when I watch a film I'm always tempted to compare it to a similar one which is undeniably good, and see if it measures up. Sam Mendes' 1999 film American Beauty is, to me, the standard all family films (and perhaps all films, in general) should try to emulate.

    American Beauty seems, at first glance, to be a mediocre flick. It starts off by introducing a dysfunctional, yet average upper-middle-class family. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle aged man who works as a magazine writer. "In less than a year, I'll be dead," he says. "But, of course, I don't know that yet." His relationship with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a real-estate broker, is less than ideal, and their teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) hates her parents and has no self-esteem (the opening shows her reading up on breast implants on the internet). A new family moves into the neighbourhood - retired Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), an authoritarian (and homophobic!) pater familias, his wife Barbara (whom the film suggests is demented), and their son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who also appears to be mentally unstable (we learn that he's just come out of a mental hospital). Ricky spends his time taping videos, especially of his new neighbours.


    When Lester reluctantly accepts to attend a school basketball game, where his daughter is cheerleading, he becomes infatuated with Jane's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Here, one of the films more sensitive themes comes into play. He starts having erotic visions of her, and finding that his attraction towards Angela seems to be reciprocated, a youthful energy comes back to him. He quits work, buys his dream car, starts lifting weights and smoking marijuana. Their new neighbour Ricky turns out to be a successful drug dealer, but also a visionary and an artist. He becomes romantically involved with Jane, and they both contemplate Ricky's most poignant video tape, which depicts a plastic bag floating in the wind. Distressed by Lester's new lifestyle, Carolyn finds refuge in adultery.


    The later plot twists are best left untold here. When I first saw the film, when the film close to the ending, I'd forgotten that Lester announces right in the beginning that he'd be dead within a year, so the actual conclusion, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, came as a surprise. But the impression that I'd seen a great film was there. The film achieved its goal of impressing me, as a viewer, and connecting me to the tribulations of its deceiving characters. I say deceiving because nothing here is as it seems. Lester is presented as a "loser" (at least, that's what his family thinks of him), yet he undergoes a heroic journey towards finding the beauty in his life, at the cost of alienating his wife (the song "Seeker" by The Who plays in the background during one of his monologues, very fittingly in my opinion). Ricky appears to be insane, yet he's a very lucid and spiritual character (I'd say he's the only one sane in this story). And the list goes on.


    So what exactly sets this film apart from all the others? I think it strikes a balance between lightheartedness and seriousness, between the comic and the dramatic. It begins on a humorous note, but doesn't overdo it. The situations it narrates are extraordinary, but its characters are ordinary enough for anybody (nearly) to identify with them. The film is more than the sum of its parts, but it bears mention that its parts alone are remarkably good. Kevin Spacey (who had already won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects) delivers a stunning performance as Lester. It's not easy to be average; Spacey uses no tricks or gimmicks to make his character special, he doesn't twist his face or overdo his intonation. The supporting cast is also top-notch.
    Mendes' direction is fairly traditional, with a few exceptions - for example, Lester's visions of Angela, which are complemented by a memorable soundtrack, which "favored pulse, rhythm and color over melody" (courtesy of Thomas Newman).
    American Beauty also disregards the taboos of American cinema. Aside from Lester's fantasies involving the young Angela, other themes include homosexuality (the closet variety, especially), adultery, escapism, materialism and redemption.
    The title of the movie has a double meaning. Literally, the American Beauty is a kind of rose (Angela is shown in Lester's dreams as naked, covered only with its petals), but the name also evokes Lester's successful quest to find beauty in all things.

    All things considered, American Beauty is a classic, one of the best Hollywood films in the last twenty years. Normally I don't consider the Oscars an authority, but this picture deserved every single prize. Everyone who has at least a passing interested in movies should see it.

    Last edited by Vizvii; June 12, 2012 at 03:59 AM.

  3. #3

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    Blade Runner - 1982

    Initially, I planned on reviewing more recent films, and then I realised I barely ever watch new releases, mostly because I've become disillusioned with contemporary cinema. I'll overcome my prejudice sometime in the future. Now, I'll make some brief comments on a movie I've only recently seen.


    Blade Runner is a 1982 sci-fi picture directed by the now-legendary Ridley Scott, and loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on how Scott perverted its plot. It's evident from the start, though, that he intended to do a film which is independent from the source material, and remarkable in its own right. I must confess, I had rather disliked Scott (for less than sensible reasons) before watching Blade Runner, but it impressed me enough for me to change my views. The film, which was initially controversial and commercially unsuccessful, is now a cult classic, and rightfully so.

    The year is 2019. Humanity has established colonies in outer space, where the physical labour is done by artificial humans called replicants. These bioengineered creatures (or at least, the advanced models) are nearly identical to real humans; so similar that a special test (the "Voight-Kampff" test) has to be performed in order to spot them, based on their emotional response to certain questions. Tyrell Corporation, the leading replicant manufacturer, has programmed them to have a lifespan of only four years, as the replicants have been shown to develop emotions of their own. Replicants are not allowed on Earth, and it's up to the so-called "Blade Runners" to kill (or "retire" as they euphemistically call it) the stray ones. This premise is the backbone of the plot.


    Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retired Blade Runner. He is detained by a police officer, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), and taken to his formed supervisor Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), who asks him to hunt down four escaped replicants, led by the charismatic Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Bryant suspects that the rogue replicants have come to Earth in search of away to extend their lifespan. When Deckard goes to the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, in order to ensure the validity of the Voight-Kampff test on new models, Tyrell himself, the inventor of the replicants, asks him to perform the test on his assistant, Rachael (Sean Young). After a lengthier string of questions than usual, he discovers that Rachael is, indeed, a replicant, albeit a very convincing one. Later on, he finds that Rachael considers herself to be a human; she has memories of her childhood, which have been implanted into her brain, and in fact belong to Tyrell's niece. Deckard informs her that she's a replicant, to her dismay, but in the course of the story he finds himself enamoured with her, and a relationship is formed between them.


    Deckard's hunt for the villainous replicants is far from easy, since they are much stronger than a normal human, and more resourceful. Roy, their leader, wishes to meet his maker (literally), and uses every subterfuge he can come up with in order to reach Tyrell. As the story progresses, the line between good and evil is blurred. The replicant gang, in spite of committing murders, comes across as rather likeable. Their goal is understandable and justified, and the emotions they show are as valid as those of a natural human. This ambiguity is strengthened by the climactic show-off between Deckard and Roy.


    At one point, Rachael asks Deckard if he's ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself. I found this uncertainty fairly interesting, and actually expected him to be revealed as a replicant, in a predictable plot twist. He isn't, but the film deliberately leaves this unclear (a certain detail hints at it in the ending).

    The movie's most distinctive aspect is its atmosphere. Every scene is characterised by dim, diffuse lighting, and a state of decay in all locations. The soundtrack, written by Vangelis, effectively contributed to this haunting feel. Of course, it's the actual context of this futuristic world that makes it so disturbing. Wild animals have become rare and extinct, and artificial ones are made to replace them. The human race is faced with an equally sinister possibility, given that replicants are nearly indistinguishable from real humans. This way, the film brings the very notion of humanity up for debate.


    The film's pacing is extremely slow, atypically for a Hollywood film. I nearly fell asleep watching it, yet it's never really boring; it's strangely hypnotic. Ridley Scott shows his true talent as a director, maintaining this peculiar feel. The pacing somewhat diluted the actor's performances, which are otherwise great. Harrison Ford makes a rather straightforward, though convincing, effort as Deckard. The replicants are more remarkable, especially Rutger Hauer as Roy, and Sean Young as Rachael (though I found her to be more on the obnoxious side).

    In the end, Blade Runner lacks a certain "bite", and falls short of becoming a truly great film. Yet it tells a gripping story, and shapes a dystopian world that is bound to stick in your memory after the credits have rolled. It's worth watching, without a doubt.

    Last edited by Vizvii; June 15, 2012 at 03:23 AM.

  4. #4
    Lord Rahl's Avatar Behold the Beard
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    Default Re: Vizvii's Assorted Film Reviews

    Good stuff, man. I'm looking forward to reading more of them.

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    Default Re: Vizvii's Assorted Film Reviews

    Thanks, more are coming up, soon.

  6. #6

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    Midnight in Paris - 2011

    Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers whom I should be paying more attention, but never really brought myself to do so. I've always treated his work like something that was there, but hidden behind a curtain of mystery. His films explore unlikely situations, particularly in terms of romantic relationships, with a unique, clever sense of humour. For example, in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a woman falls in love with a movie character, who breaks the fourth wall (literally) and comes to life.

    Last year's Midnight in Paris, which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, has a similar premise. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter, is on holiday in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, who are rich and conservative, and regard Gil as a communist. Gil is writing his first novel, seeking true art, as opposed to the shallow Hollywood screenplays he's done before. He is fascinated with the city, which, he thinks, looks more beautiful in the rain (the film opens with several shots of the city's major landmarks; at one point, it starts raining). Inez is more prosaic and doesn't share Gil's opinions. They are joined by Inez's friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a "pseudo-intellectual" who speaks in great detail about the city's art and history, providing much comic effect; Gil loathes him, while Inez admires him.


    When Gil, slightly intoxicated, wanders through the backstreets of Paris at midnight, he encounters an old Peugeot automobile. The passengers urge him to join, and take him to a bar. There, Gil meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, while Cole Porter is playing the piano and singing in the background. He realises that he's been transported back in time, to the 1920s, his favourite era. He then meets Ernest Hemingway, and asks him for advice concerning his novel, which is set in an antique store. Hemingway refuses, saying that two writers are always in competition, but agrees to introduce him to Gertrude Stein. Upon leaving the bar, Gil is transported back to 2010.

    The following night, he tries to bring Inez with him to the past, but she becomes impatient while waiting and goes back to the hotel. At midnight, the car arrives again. Hemingway takes him to Gertrude Stein, who promises she'll read and evaluate the novel. Gil is also introduced to Pablo Picasso and his beautiful mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard), with whom Gil later becomes infatuated.


    The characters from the past are characterised rather superficially, and used mostly for humour. Hemingway holds a brief monologue on courage and love at one point, and hollers "Who wants to fight?" at another. In a way, it's hard to tell when the movie is being serious and when it's merely jesting. Gil later meets Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, and confesses that he is a time-traveller from the future. The surrealists assure him that this is perfectly normal, while Dalí rambles about rhinoceroses (though, to be fair, Dalí's English was worse in real life).

    Owen Wilson's performance is spot-on. His character is talkative, permanently insecure (in a lovable way), passionate and sympathetic - the complete opposite of his fiancée (or, indeed, all characters in the film's present day). Evidently, he's been influenced by the acting style of Woody Allen himself, who was very content with Wilson. In one scene, Gil decides to bring a pair of earrings into the past as a gift for Adriana, and removes a pair from Inez's jewellery box. Inez and her parents stumble in, so Gil finds himself at an impasse, unable to cope with the situation. Watching him stammer is amusing, but the scene is powerful enough to deliver a more profound emotion, when Gil's disillusion with his present-day relatives becomes clear.

    The theme of nostalgia for the past is treated in an objective manner. Gil thinks the 1920s were Paris's Golden Age, whereas Adriana believes the 1890s (La Belle Époque) were the best era to live in. The Parisian painters of the 1890s believed the Renaissance was history's greatest time - and so on. Eventually, Gil settles for the present day, although his time-travelling experiences convince him to rethink his lifestyle.

    Woody Allen's direction is mostly conventional. His humour, tasteful as it might be, relies on certain gimmicks at times. Inez's father hires a detective to follow Gil during his nightly walks; in the ending we see him transported to the King's court in the 17th century, and then chased by his guards. Regardless, this movie is top-quality material; few filmmakers are capable of telling such a sensitive story in such a believable way. Here, Woody Allen doesn't go for dull sentimentalism, but portrays an interesting set of characters instead. The "historical" characters didn't impress me overmuch, but I suppose their caricatural presentation was enough to get the movie's singular plot going.


    You don't need to share Gil's nostalgia for the past to enjoy this film. I think a good mood is all that's necessary. It's no masterpiece, but I'm sure this movie will appeal to anyone who has a heart.

    "'Out Of The Past' was the name of the store, and its products consisted of memories: what was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp."

    Last edited by Vizvii; June 21, 2012 at 08:49 AM.

  7. #7
    Sicknero's Avatar Senator
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    Can't comment on your review of Midnight in Paris as I've not got around to seeing it yet, but your other two are very good.

    American Beauty I've watched several times and I don't doubt will do again, I think it's great and it always absorbs me totally. I get the impression that we both came away from this film with similar feelings about it.
    Blade Runner is also a long-time favourite... I've read the book about three times too, a long long time ago, and although there's quite a difference in the 'atmosphere' and the way that Deckard comes across as a character, I can't say that I was especially struck by any particular 'perversion' of the basic plot/storyline. That's something I normally pick up on very strongly with films of books and vice versa, so I guess Scott must have been reasonably respectful of Dick's original story. But it was a long time ago as I say, and reading your review has given me the urge to read and watch the story again...

    Thank you for efforts anyway, an enjoyable read and I look forward to more. +Rep.
    Last edited by Sicknero; June 25, 2012 at 02:59 PM.
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  8. #8

    Default Re: Vizvii's Assorted Film Reviews

    Thanks for the comment.
    Blade Runner is also a long-time favourite... I've read the book about three times too, a long long time ago, and although there's quite a difference in the 'atmosphere' and the way that Deckard comes across as a character, I can't say that I was especially struck by any particular 'perversion' of the basic plot/storyline.
    That was a bit gratuitous on my part, I suppose. As I said, I haven't read the book.

  9. #9

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    The Dictator - 2012

    Here's a film that appears to be devoid of any particular depth, the sort of brutal slapstick comedy that only Sacha Baron Cohen can deliver so effectively. "The Dictator" is "the heroic story of a North African dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed". It also reminds us, thanks to its title, at least, of Charlie Chaplin's 1940 classic (which I personally disliked, in spite of my love for Chaplin's movies). Times have changed, and Cohen's picture comes across as a more biting commentary of the Western World, the environment in which the bulk of its viewers live in, rather than a critique of Middle-Eastern dictatorships.

    Sacha Baron Cohen (who is also co-producer and co-writer) stars as Admiral General Aladeen, the absolute ruler of the Republic of Wadiya (a fictional country shown to be located somewhere near the Horn of Africa). Aladeen is abusive, immature and antisemitic (like all of Cohen's characters); he is opposed to selling oil to the West (I had to ignore this economic plothole) and is developing nuclear weapons. He's also protected by female bodyguards, like Gaddafi - naturally, the Libyan dictator stands out as Cohen's chief inspiration for the character. The beginning of the film shows his habit of sending people to be executed, including the leading scientist of his nuclear program, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who he disagrees with over the shape of the missile heads.


    The United Nations resolve to intervene militarity in Wadiya, so he travels to the UN headquarters in New York City to address the Security Council. Aladeen's malicious uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plots to remove him from power and replace him with a mentally deficient double (also played by Cohen), so he hires an American hitman called Clayton (John C. Reilly), who kidnaps the dictator shortly after their arrival in the U.S. Aladeen manages to escape from Clayton's basement mostly unharmed, but his majestic beard has been removed. He rushes back to the Wadiyan convoy, where he finds out that Tamir has betrayed him. He encounters protester Zoey (Anna Faris), a short-haired liberal whom he later describes as a "lesbian hobbit" and a "hairy-titted yeti". Zoey offers him a job at her store, which he initially rejects. Then, Aladeen is fatefully reunited with Nadal, the former chief of his nuclear arms project; the two reconcile and vow to work together to restore Aladeen to power.

    Is it funny? That's basically all that counts in such a grotesque movie. As in all comedies, this depends entirely on the viewer. I hold the opinion that humour is serious business, it can't be forced or premeditated most of the time. It derives from a continuous assault upon the viewer. Cohen has more than enough improvisational flair to make this work, although his gags are inevitably hit-or-miss. I sometimes wonder whether one can have a laugh without offending somebody else (maybe the sum of all laughs in the world is zero?). Cohen's trademark jokes are more offensive than average, and it's hard to evaluate them objectively. Either you laugh or you don't. If you get offended in some way (by way of the crudeness and vulgarity of the jokes, for instance) then you'll have a bad time. Personally, I laughed. A lot.


    It's good that Cohen sticks to what he knows best here, without attempting subtlety or other such nonsense, and it works. A scene where Aladeen and Nadal go on a tour of New York City by helicopter, and start speaking in mock-Arabic about fireworks ("Statue of Liberty boom-boom!"), prompting their American co-passengers to panic, was the pinnacle of hilarity in this movie. This is why I stated that the film is more critical of Western taboos than of anything else, since the West is what the audience cares about and only in this respect can they be offended. It may not be as effective as Borat, but it's a success in what it sets out to do. I appreciate Cohen's efforts because he strives to attack more sensitive themes, as offensively as possible. With the recent deaths of Gaddafi and Kim Jong-Il (the film is officially dedicated to the latter), this movie's subject matter could not be more fitting. Even his publicity campaign was well-planned - his Academy Awards ceremony shenanigans, where the spilled the purported ashes of the late North Korean leader, come to mind.

    Director Larry Charles achieves does a fine job in tying the disjointed jokes together, and tuning the pace so that it doesn't get in the way. You can hardly get bored in its 83 minutes since there's never a dull moment. No film has the viewer continuously in stitches. Most comedies these days lack as much as a working script, so this one is like a breath of fresh air. The soundtrack, composed by Sacha's older brother, Erran, is suitably mock-oriental and hilarious.


    Yet truly great comedies, even those of the slapstick variety, have moments of seriousness, faint as it might be. "The Dictator" may allude to Chaplin's movie, but it doesn't follow its example. Which is a pity, since Cohen is a talented actor, capable of much more than he's exhibited so far. Still, this film achieves its goal, and I can't help but admire Cohen for what he does.

    Last edited by Vizvii; July 05, 2012 at 06:30 AM.

  10. #10

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    Footnote - 2011

    Footnote is an Israeli film which was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Film in 2012. When I was reading about it and browsing through its reviews, I felt that its general premise appealed to me, and wanted to see it. What could be better than a foreign (relative to the U.S.) film which attempts a greater psychological depth and doesn't get stuck in the shifting sands of cliches and tired stereotypes? It's Israeli, too. I won't even try to joke about its country of origin, as it wouldn't be politically correct - let's just say that I'm fond of the Coen Brothers' movies, who are also Jewish, and one reviewer likened this film to theirs.

    The movie, directed and written by Joseph Cedar, is generally based on the relationship between Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), a researcher of the Talmud, a philologist and a university professor, and his son Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), who is also a Talmudic scholar and a professor. While Uriel is fairly popular, likeable and recognized (the movie begins with his induction into the Israel Academy of Sciences), his father is mostly unknown, and nobody cares about his university courses (an introductory scene tells us that he refused to cancel a lecture even though only one student applied for it). Eliezer made a breakthrough discovery in his youth concerning a medieval sacred text, but his nemesis, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) took all the credit, and now he takes pride in being mentioned by a solitary footnote in the book of a much more famous historian - hence the movie's title.


    One afternoon the elderly Eliezer receives a phonecall which informs him that he's been chosen as one of this year's Israel Prize laureates - the country's highest honour. For twenty years he's been nominated and found ineligible. The following day, his son Uriel is urgently summoned to a meeting with the Israel Prize committee, led by Eliezer's rival, professor Grossman. At this point, Uriel learns that a mistake has been made. It wasn't his father who had been elected to receive the prestigious Prize, but himself; one member suggested Uriel as the recipient, and the others unanimously agreed. Now the jury ask Uriel to break the news to his father.

    This revelation provides the backbone of the film's plot, which proves to be very strong and efficient. The scene itself, terrifically crafted, is one of the most powerful I've seen in recent films. It presents the character Uriel with a complex dilemma. He opts to renounce the award in favour of his father, as he thinks that the disappointment will effectively kill the elderly professor. Expectedly, Grossman fiercely opposes this call, providing a fairly reasonable argumentation. He eventually gives his consent, provided Uriel writes the jury's recommendation. This development is the basis of another memorable scene. I won't elaborate since I've already spoiled enough of the story; I'll just add that by this moment, the movie had convinced me of its quality.


    Yet it's not all evenly great. One plot thread that is hinted at in the first half of the movie is left unresolved, mysteriously - and not in a good way. Concerning the secondary characters, Uriel's wife Dikla (Alma Zack) has a fairly interesting part in the whole affair, and so has his mother, the only person to whom Uriel confesses the truth behind his father's award. Still, I had the feeling that more could have been done in the film's running time, and that it was a bit of a one-joke act; fortunately it was so well realised that I really can't mind. Speaking of jokes, the movie attempts some dry humour in the beginning, and may get some smiles or sniggers out of the viewer (it worked with me), but it's so abruptly replaced by its vastly more important tragic tone that it feels out of place.


    Joseph Cedar's direction is quite innovative, especially in the opening scenes where Eliezer and Uriel are described in stunning detail using remarkable documentary-style graphics. Towards the end he plays it more safely, though Eliezer's slightly demented psyche is portrayed with some audacity. The original soundtrack also sets the mood just fine. As I said before, the screenplay is excellent, while not particularly heavy-handed. The exceptional performances of the lead actors, Bar Aba and Ashkenazi, give it sufficient power.

    This is a film that can linger in your mind long after it's finished running. It could have been even more, but I suppose Cedar chose not to be carried away and corrupted by his ambitions (unlike his character Eliezer). He deliberately wrote his characters as Talmudic researchers because this branch is the smallest department of the University of Jerusalem and arguably the least important, yet naturally, in the context of their infinitesimal lives their work carries monumental importance. The result is a genuinely impressive film, which deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of contemporary cinema.

    "When your grandchildren, my children, ask me today what my profession is, I reply, with much pride, that I, like you, am a teacher."


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