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Redefining Reality

I happened to be looking at the Wikipedia article for Keyser Soze today, and saw this:

In his 1999 review of Fight Club, film critic Roger Ebert commented that "A lot of recent films seem unsatisfied unless they can add final scenes that redefine the reality of everything that has gone before; call it the Keyser Söze syndrome."

So naturally, I tried to think of films besides Fight Club and The Usual Suspects that do that. The only ones that leap to mind are The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The Village comes close, but the twist arrives earlier than at the very end of the film.

Am I missing any outside of the Shayamalan oeuvre? I recall hearing that Vanilla Sky had a twist, but I haven't seen the film so I don't know if it qualifies by having a reality-redefining twist.

For our purposes, let's only consider films after The Usual Suspects (1994). And please, no spoilers.

Comments (14) | last by Wei-Hwa Huang, Mar 11, 1:53 AM

Slumdog Millionaire

I'll grant you, I was predisposed to like Slumdog Millionaire on the basis of its subject matter-- an uneducated man from the slums of Mumbai goes for the top prize on India's edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. I doubt the rest of the theater was filled with former game show contestants, however, and the spontaneous applause at the film's conclusion proved that the film was well received all around.

The film wastes no time getting directly to the story. Jamal has already gotten 14 questions correct, with only the final question standing between him and the top prize. But how could an ignorant, uneducated "slumdog" like him get all the answers correct, when so many more educated people repeatedly fail? He's accused of cheating, and the police torture him to try to extract a confession. Instead, as the investigating officer replays Jamal's appearance on the show, at each question Jamal explains how his life experience taught him the answers-- often at great personal cost.

Despite its obvious gimmickry, it's a marvelous framing device. The story unfolds in vignettes from Jamal's past, told against the exotic, colorful, and heartbreaking backdrop of India. The child actors are brilliant-- better, in fact, than the older actors playing their adult counterparts. You can't help but root for their indomitable spirit as they desperately seek a way to survive amidst devastating poverty, racial attacks, and human predators. But through it all, like The Princess Bride, this is a story of True Love, of one person's unwavering certainty that he and the woman he loves are destined to be together.

I was utterly engrossed by this film. Some creative license was likely taken with the game show sequences-- even in India, I doubt very much that the host of the show would ever share a bathroom with a contestant-- but it has great authenticity thanks to being shot on the Millionaire set. The scenes in the hot seat are every bit as effective as those on the Ganges. This is a terrific movie.

Comments (2) | last by Peter, Jan 21, 5:08 PM

Titles

A pair of YouTube videos (part 1, part 2) offers up a montage of the creator's picks for the top 25 title sequences of all time. I think he really missed the boat-- many of them don't rate at all for me. He did get 2 of the 3 I thought of off the top of my head before watching-- Superman and Catch Me If You Can, but he missed Spider-Man 2 whose comic book recap of the first movie was brilliant. I agree with Panic Room, but also have the sense (though I can't remember it at all, so perhaps I'm wrong) that Fight Club, also by Fincher, merits inclusion.

What other cool titles am I forgetting?

Comments (6) | last by Eric Berlin, Jul 25, 12:53 PM

The Forgotten

I don't really keep track of how well my opinions match those of film reviewers, despite how useful knowing such a correlation would be in evaluating whether or not to go to the theater. But in the case of The Forgotten, Roger Ebert and I are on precisely the same page.

Even if you haven't seen this 2004 film, you might remember the signature scene from the trailers, in which a man tied to a chair whispers "They're listening" into Julianne Moore's ear just before getting sucked through the suddenly roofless cabin and into the night sky. The movie itself begins with an entirely different tenor, and in fact it seems like you're dropped into the middle of an interesting psychological drama about a woman who may or may not be crazy. And there was definitely a compelling movie to be made with the fundamental premise dangled before us in those opening minutes. The makers of The Forgotten were unfortunately not interested in telling that story. Instead, the story careens from psychodrama to thriller to science fiction-- which might have worked, if it wasn't both preposterous (a frazzled woman evades the most incompetant NSA agents ever) and ignorant.

Science fiction is a genre of ideas. In the best SF, the story posits some intriguing concept and then explores the ramifications of that idea. In the worst SF, wacky inventions or unfathomable aliens are merely the convenience by which the writer makes the characters dance to his tune. The Forgotten is squarely in the latter camp-- especially frustrating because the questions posed are intriguing. But there's no payoff. We barely find out the "who" or "what", and have absolutely no clue about the most important answer of all-- the "why". As Ebert points out, the film desperately needed someone to deliver a clumsy expository speech spelling out all the details. It's not even as if those details were in the film for the viewers to piece together. They're simply not there. The credits roll and you're left thinking, "What the hell was THAT about?" -- and not in an artsy, David Lynchian way.

Comment (1) | last by Dave Heberer, May 25, 2:03 PM

Volver

I am a philistine.

After wading knee-deep through the lavish praise being heaped upon Pedro Almodovar's Volver, that's the only conclusion I can draw. Either that, or I saw a completely different movie.

Volver is a movie in which nothing happens. Things are set up and then never paid off. The movie is all backstory and no story. It's a character study in which we're given no reason to care about the characters. It asks us to believe that grown adults, when faced with their mother who they thought had died four years earlier, would actually believe she's a ghost-- despite her physicality.

I spent much of the movie oscillating between abject confusion at the characters' behavior and impatient incredulity that none of the many promising plot threads were getting developed for a payoff.

Naturally, the gf loved it.

Comments (3) | last by Jack, Feb 20, 12:58 PM

Pan's Labyrinth

I never would have gone to see this film were it not for its split identity. Part of the story involves a little girl, Ofelia, who travels with her mother to a mill serving as the headquarters for a captain of the Spanish army just after the Spanish Civil War. The captain, a regimented, callous man, is the woman's new husband and father of her unborn son. While the woman rests in advance of giving birth, the captain seeks to locate and eliminate rebels hiding in the hills. This portion of the story certainly works, and even delivers some powerful scenes as we witness the captain's uncompromising brutality, but it treads fairly familiar ground-- the abusive military leader, the housekeeper sympathetic to the rebels and protective of the children, the doctor true to his oath first. If that was all there was to the film, it would merit little true notice.

Ofelia, however, is not an ordinary child. Her soul is that of a princess of a lost underground realm. Early in her journey she discovers a stone carving of an eye, and when she replaces that piece into the stone plinth from which it came she encounters a large stickbug-like insect that she calls a fairy. The fairy follows her to the mill and, in one of the truly magical moments of the film, visibly transforms itself to match Ofelia's notion of what a fairy really looks like. It leads her to an ancient labyrinth behind the mill, where she meets a satyr-like creature called a faun who informs Ofelia of who she really is and tells her she has a chance to return to her father's realm.

The fantasy sequences are inventive and vivid. The use of CGI is utterly transparent, with the fairies integrating seamlessly into the scene and never once feeling like a distraction. The faun was particularly well-done, possessing an ancient quality to his movement and voice that utterly sells the idea that he's been around for a very long time. While the fantasy storyline takes its cues from countless fairy tales, it feels fresh and new thanks to the art design, dark palette, and direction.

So is Ofelia really a princess, or is she just a girl with an active imagination? The film is agnostic on this question until the very end, when it seems to suggest an answer by showing a shot of Ofelia from the captain's point of view. That single shot completely ruined the effect of the film for me. Part of what makes the movie work is that, by consistently treating the fantastic elements as real but showing them only within the context of Ofelia's experience, the question of their reality is left to the judgment of the viewer. Did Ofelia really draw a doorway and sneak into the mill, or did she just find an unlocked door or hidden opening? We don't know. Did she really confront a giant frog, or just crawl around in the mud? We don't know. We can either believe or not. But at the end, the filmmakers seem to answer that key question for us, which trivializes the experience and removes much of the magic. Cut that one shot, and the audience leaves the film with no clear answer and must interpret for themselves.

With that one caveat, I was utterly captivated by Pan's Labyrinth. If anything, I would have liked to have seen Ofelia delve even deeper into the fantasy world so that we could see more delightful creatures and environments from the mind of writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Don't let the fact that this is a subtitled film keep you from the theater, but don't bring the kids-- this is not a Disney film.

Comments (21) | last by Liam, Sep 22, 8:26 PM

Deja Vu

I'm a sucker for time travel stories. I think I'm attracted to the attention to detail such stories require, especially when traveling into the past and back. The beauty of it is that as a viewer, I'm willing to let the screenwriter define whatever rules he wants to, and I'll believe the universe works that way. In Deja Vu the writers couldn't decide how their universe worked, and so they let it work in whatever way the plot required. Sloppy.

A terrorist blows up a New Orleans ferry, and a woman's scorched body is found downriver but with a time of death predating the explosion. This sets off a chain of events which sees ATF agent Denzel Washington recruited into a top-secret FBI project that surveils through time. With a lot of expository hand-waving to basically say, "Look, we know it's ridiculous to believe that any number of satellites would provide enough data to not only watch a good chunk of New Orleans at any resolution and from any angle, but also to see through walls-- but we need to assume that it's possible for the sake of our story, so just go along with us, OK?" Washington learns that an accidental wormhole lets the FBI peer backward in time by four days. They can be anywhere in their covered area in that time, but they can't fast-forward or rewind-- they get only one shot. They need Washington to tell them where to look so they can find the guy responsible before he gets away.

But of course we in the audience know there's more to the story than that. It's Denzel Washington, people-- do you really think he's going to let the ferry blow up or the girl get killed? So it's no real surprise to discover that the wormhole isn't just a viewer, but a true portal. The way Denzel discovers this is the first time the writers break their own rules, confusing a monitor displaying the data from the wormhole with the wormhole itself, but it's not the last. They couldn't seem to decide if time was mutable or immutable. Washington participates in an autopsy of the charred woman's body, but later prevents her from being charred in the first place. Mutable. Meanwhile, the first time he visits her apartment after the autopsy, refrigerator magnets (among other things) indicate that he's already been there. Immutable. Which timeline is he in-- the one where the woman dies, or the one where he saves her? The writers don't seem to know, and so he's in both at once. The timelines of the movie just don't make sense.

Still, the film does give leverage its premise to give us a wonderful (if absurd) action sequence in which Washington chases the bad guy through time, tailing him from a distance of four days and just a few yards. It wouldn't surprise me if the entire movie were created to support this one gripping and inventive sequence. Washington, as always, is terrific, and there's some nice supporting work from Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg. And if you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept the technology as given, Deja Vu serves up a solid action brownie. Just eat from the middle, and avoid all the imperfections at the edges.

Comment (1) | last by Chris Lemon, Dec 5, 7:13 AM

Why'd It Have to Be Snakes?

Browsing the TV schedule tonight I noticed a channel showing Passenger 57 starring Wesley Snipes. And it occurred to me that they really need to rerelease that film under the title Snipes on a Plane.

Comment (1) | last by Jelly, Aug 27, 11:11 AM

Movie Roundup

X3: How to kill a franchise in one easy step. The film version of the Dark Phoenix story lacked any pathos. Hugh Jackman will return in Wolverine, but Patrick Stewart seems gone even if Professor X survives. We never saw Cyclops get disintegrated (a cut scene, or intentional?), so James Marsden might return, but Famke Jansen is clearly out and both Mystique and Magneto are neutralized (itty bitty chess piece movement not withstanding). Kelsey Grammer was spot-on as Beast, however, and it was nice to see Storm finally get to do something. There are enough characters in the X-verse to sustain a film series forever, but eradicating the characters at the heart of the mutant universe isn't the direction I'd have chosen.

Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale's story-- or the version of it told in the film-- is remarkable. I particularly love that he makes millions today, legitimately, as a security consultant to banks and corporations. Leonardo DiCaprio was terrific in the film, but the real stars were the retro soundtrack, costumes, and sets. And a short segment from the real episode of To Tell the Truth on which Frank Abagnale appeared can be viewed online.

Napoleon Dynamite: A film with no believable characters in which nothing actually happens. Only the virtuoso dance finale deserves any measure of cult status-- everything else about the film is entirely forgetable.

An Inconvenient Truth: Best. Powerpoint. Ever. The comparison shots of various glaciers today vs. 10, 20, or 30 years ago leave in indelible impression of how royally screwed we are. And if that's not enough for you, the infamous cherry picker should do the trick. If Al Gore had shown this six years ago, he'd be the president today. Some say this film is paving the way for a Gore in 2008 campaign. I know I'd vote for him with far more enthusiasm than any of the Democratic candidates generated two years ago. Enthusiasm and Al Gore. Now there are two concepts you never expected to see in the same sentence.

Heart of the Game: Look in their eyes! Look in their eyes! What flabbergasts me is that as a sophomore, the star player was getting letters of interest from colleges across the country. Then she gets pregnant, misses a season, but returns as a fifth year senior and not only becomes an honors student but leads her team to the state championship-- and colleges don't want to have anything to do with her. Can anyone explain that to me?

Comment (1) | last by Chris Lemon, Jul 4, 12:01 PM

Memorial Day isn't for another few weeks, but summer's already here in the form of Mission: Impossible III, which is everything a summer movie should be. Fun, exciting, loud, and completely devoid of any semblance of realism. Sure, Tom Cruise is playing the same guy he plays in every movie. One of the movie's key action sequences is oddly reduced to an off-screen phone-call (I'd love to know if it was cut, or just intentionally left to our imagination). The agent in distress that brings Cruise's Ethan Hunt back into the field is-- surprise!-- a woman. And I'm quite done with spy stories in which there's a mole in the hero's agency (I'm looking at you, CTU), particularly one so obviously telegraphed. It takes hours of makeup each day to make an actor resemble the celebrity he's portraying, but IMF is able to throw a just-fabricated latex mask and a wig on him and fool his closest associates. And director JJ Abrams stole his own explosive-charge-in-the-head plot device just a couple of weeks ago on Alias, which seems like an extremely poor choice on his part.

But you know... so what? I didn't care because I was just along for the ride. There was no pretentious, faux-artsy crap, no slow-motion doves. The audience was there for an action caper, and if there's one thing 5 years on Alias taught Mr. Abrams, it's how to deliver those goods.

It's not giving anything away to say that the movie opens with a scene from much later in the story, and then jumps back to the beginning. Was that in the screenplay, or a directorial choice? Because it isn't trivial. That scene tells us right up front that certain things are going to happen, which of course completely changes how the viewer relates to the rest of the film. Within minutes we know Ethan Hunt will be captured. We know his romantic interest will be captured. We know there will be an explosive charge implanted in Hunt's brain. Knowing those things, bread crumbs that are dropped earlier resonate for us immediately, rather than paying off much later. I thought the device worked, paradoxically increasing the tension despite knowing where things were headed.

It also doesn't hurt that Mission: Impossible theme is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatrical music ever crafted, better even than the Bond riff. The theme alone creates suspense and sets a mood. Pure genius.

With this, X3, Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, Superman Returns and, dare I say it, Snakes on a Plane, this is shaping up to be a decent escapist summer.

Comments (4) | last by Nathan Beeler, May 9, 8:36 AM

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